Napoli’s Walls
ECM 1857

Aiming for a sort of automated rusticity, French reedist Louis Sclavis mutates his idea of so-called imaginary folklore still further on NAPOLI’s WALLS by incorporating electronics manipulated by two of the musicians.

Results are mixed. Sometimes the timbres on these 10 tunes, written to reflect the art adhered to public spaces of Naples by Ernest Pignon-Ernest, gets a certain POMO fillip from the loops and sine waves. Other times they seem more like a potpourri of effects that glance off one another without connecting. Although a series of Pignon-Ernest’s images are reprinted in the booklet, Sclavis sees his songs as reflective a fictive Naples. This makes the CD more a collection of pure rather than program music.

The reedist, whose previous projects have ranged from a jazz quartet with Quebec saxist Jean Derome to reinterpretations of 18th century compositions by Jean Phillip Rameau, actually sounds freest on a tune that affixes a jazz beat on top of the other sounds.

That piece is “Kennedy in Napoli”. Dedicated to Charles Mingus, it features cellist Vincent Courtois sluicing from medieval ground bass to the sort of double- stopping walking that would be more easily recognized by Mingus partisans. Courtois, whose solo efforts often speak to the same modern primitivism as Sclavis, even shows himself capable of a thumping slap-bass solo.

Earlier on, the tempo of the tune with its bubbling clarinet tone and muted, hocketing trumpet line from Médéric Collignon appear in polyharmony and polyrhythms to be a close cousin to similar lively tunes of Italian clarinetist Gianlugi Trovesi, another imaginary folklorist. Collignon, whose talents liven up the Orchestra National de France, splays ebullient grace notes from his pocket trumpet, then electronically extends them with aviary grace.

Elsewhere the diminutive brassman showcases his other skills — as a percussionist and as a vocalist whose many pitches relate in this context more to gymel, a medieval technique of splitting one voice part into two, than American scat singing. This is more apparent on “Divinazione Moderna, part 2” — “Divinazione Moderna, part 1,” is merely an intermezzo. As Sclavis sounds Klezmer-like tones from his clarinet, Danish guitarist Hasse Poulsen fingerpicks what could be a tarantella. Mixed in between shouts and mumbles in a Neapolitan dialect, is Collignon, who at first vocalizes roughly. Then as Sclavis pumps harder timbres from his bass clarinet, the vocalist morphs into a Luciano Pavarotti concert tenor role; then he spatters counter tenor-like jazzy licks all over.

“Il disegno smangiato d’un uomo” finds Collignon on percussion and Courtois creating a Bo Diddley-like back beat usually played by bass and drums. Sclavis’ clarinet trills and glissandos on top of this makes it appear as if he could be playing lead horn in a rock band. The crackle of Poulsen’s electrified guitar and pocket trumpet blats have already suggested this rhythm. By the finale, blended harmonies from clarinet and cello create new pastoral lines taken moderato.

Other tracks feature non-congruent asides such as bucolic clarinet tones that meet up with flying, fiddle swirls, near bottleneck guitar fills, and Collignon appearing to recite nursery rhymes in an imaginary dialect. Elsewhere, an electronic echo expanding the muted trumpet line’s grace notes meets slinky pizzicato strings.

One track features a languid cabaletta-like melody with heraldic trumpet lines and legato romantic strings, while another mixes electronics on top of what could be a rustic ditty. Ring modulator loops, rock band like reverb from the guitarist and irregularly pulsed percussion leads Sclavis to bring out his baritone on “Guetteur d’inaperçu”, but even at the bottom of his range his playing sounds curiously delicate among the whistling electronics and slurred jettes from Courtois.

This meditation on Naples and Pignon-Ernest can be enjoyable from many angles, especially if you like Sclavis’ earlier work. But it seems that pastiche has won over program music here, no matter the reedman’s intentions.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Colleur de nuit 2. Napoli’s Walls 3. Mercè 4. Kennedy in Napoli 5. Divinazione Moderna, part 1 6. Divinazione Moderna, part 2 7. Guetteur d’inaperçu 8. Les apparences 9. Porta segreta 10. Il disegno smangiato d’un uomo

Personnel: Médéric Collignon (pocket trumpet, horn, percussion electronics and voice); Louis Sclavis (clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano and baritone saxophones); Hasse Poulsen (guitar); Vincent Courtois (cello and electronics)