Dans La Nuit
ECM 1805 CD 314 589 524-2

Described by one jazz guide as “potentially the most important French jazz musician since Django Reinhardt”, clarinetist Louis Sclavis has for years involved himself in a variety of projects to either show off his versatility or confirm his status.

A classically trained woodwind player from Lyon, Sclavis appears to be as interested in musical Gallic folklore, Renaissance music and 21st century European art music as jazz improvisation. Having played with stylists as different as Free Jazz pioneer pianist Cecil Taylor, Québeçois musique actuelle saxophonist Jean Derome and mainstreamer bop drummer and countryman Daniel Humair, Sclavis has work on versatility. Recently as well, his interest in theatre has expanded into writing film scores, including Ça commence aujord’hui, a popular French film directed by Bertrand Tavernier, best known in North America for his jazz biopic, ‘Round Midnight.

It was Tavernier who persuaded Sclavis to compose and improvise new music for Dans La Nuit, a 1930 French silent film, directed by and staring Charles Vanel and set near Lyon. Newly restored by the Cinémathique Française, it was the task of Sclavis and his five associates to create sounds that were faithful to the images, but expressed his musical personality as well.

That he came up with a richly atmospheric and melodic score that succeeds in amplifying and accompanying the drama from a time more than 70 years ago is unquestionable. But whether the demands of marrying his themes and tempos to the existing film somehow muted his individuality raises another question. With 16 tracks here ranging in duration from barely one minute to slightly more than six, there are times when the necessities of the score seem to take precedence over the full-fledged identity and musical aspirations of the players.

These aren’t studio hacks either. Percussionist François Merville is a member of Sclavis’ touring band as is cellist Vincent Courtois, who has also recorded with such improv/folklorists as tubaist Michel Godard and guitarist Noel Akchoté. Violinist Dominique Pifarély is long-time Sclavis associate; while accordionist Jean Louis Matinier not only played with the clarinetist on Ça…but recorded with the likes of Italian saxist Gianluigi Trovesi and American vibist David Friedman.

Thus there are places here, especially on the shortest pieces, where the natural tendency to blend accordion and violin hardens into a putty of cloying fragility which takes precedence over tougher musical sounds. Merville’s decision to stick exclusively to brushes adds to this. Alternately, as on “Amour et beauté”, a descriptive title if there ever was one, Sclavis has created what could be a cushion of baroque strings for his clarinet. We know he has an interest in folklore, but isn’t this moving the sounds many years before the 1930s? Elsewhere, as on “Le travail”, a bass clarinet and accordion duo produce a quasi-tarantella.

Perhaps it’s the lack of visuals that produce anomalies like this. Certainly the near gigue utilizing marimba, accordion and strings isn’t what the listener would imagine under the title “L’accident Part 2”. Nor would a blindfold test participant guess that the brief reverberation of duple notes from the woody marimba, bal musette accordion tones and lightly plucked strings are supposed to represent a “Mauvais rêve”, which is translated as bad dream. Even the main theme, played and reprised in waltz time by Pifarély and Matinier appears to be overly decorative.

That said, the meatiest music seems to be that which is given enough time to develop or definitively describe happenings. “Le miroir”, for instance, with its touches of Viennese atonality, has enough space to showcase lugubrious clarinet split tones and smears that morphs into flute-like sounds. Later Merville’s tougher percussion touch, utilizing cymbal strikes, kettledrum bashes and what could be seltzer bottle pops spur the cellist and violinist to move from glissandos to carefully emphasized single string passage. Although uncredited, you can even hear a piano — probably played by Matinier — on the track as well. “Dia Dia” finds a unique mixture of what sounds like a modern vibraphone cutting the sucrose in an overly sweet confection baked in Pifarély sad gypsy violin.

All of the players sound as if they’re improvising on “Les 2 visages”, the CD’s longest track. Twining the melody from Sclavis’ clarinet with a variation on organ chords from Matinier, their ballroom dance is interrupted by a short fiddle passage echoing the representative theme, which leads the accordionist to invent some warbling harmonica-like tones from his keys and bellows.

Finally there’s “La fuite”, the one piece which really sounds as if it can stand on its own, divorced the program. With carefully syncopated strings and squeezebox tones in the background, the clarinetist elaborates the airy, clear melody in mid-range. Featuring much tension and no release, the built up clarinet notes get faster and more frantic as the tune develops, as do the string parts from Pifarély and Courtois. All contribute to the musical experience of terror and flight.

If you’re a soundtrack fancier than DANS LA NUIT with its rich, atmospheric melodies will doubtless attract you. But be warned, it may not be the best introduction to the unique playing and improvising talents of Sclavis and his musicians.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Dia Dia 2. Le travail 3. Dans la nuit 4. Fête Foraine 5. Retour de noce 6. Mauvais rêve 7. Amour et beauté 8. L’accident Part 1 9. L’accident Part 2 10. Le miroir 11. Dans la nuit 12. La fuite 13. La peur du noir 14. Les 2 visages 15. Dia Dia 16. Dans la nuit

Personnel: Louis Sclavis (clarinet, bass clarinet); Jean Louis Matinier (accordion); Dominique Pifarély (violin); Vincent Courtois (cello); François Merville (percussion, marimba)