Louis Sclavis & Jean-Marc Montera


By Ken Waxman
July 11, 2005

Free Music punters familiar with the sounds of French clarinetist Louis Sclavis are going to be thrown for a loop with this CD. That’s because the Lyons-based reedman moves ‘way beyond his customary comfort zone into the realm of atonal playing. The reason: the participation of Marseilles-based guitarist Jean-Marc Montera. The results: exceptional and revelatory.

Part of the Folklore imagainaire movement which has its main adherents in France and Italy, Sclavis, who plays soprano saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet here, usually records in breezy, somewhat pastoral circumstances, seconded by guitars, accordions, cellists and violinists. His usual home is ECM. Yet this 13 chapitre suite exposes a tougher, more combative side of his playing, which perhaps was only fully showcased in 1994 when he recorded with hard-edged cellist Ernst Reijseger from the Netherlands.

Here the impetus isn’t foreign grown, but a French-Corsican guitarist whose improv path is far different than Sclavis’. Montera – whose instruments of choice on Roman are guitar, table guitar and electronics – co-founded GRIM (badly translated as Group of Search and Musical Improvisation) in 1978. From this description, you can understand that Montera’s musical interest isn’t limited to pure jazz, impressionistic or otherwise. Since that time, the guitarist has leapfrogged from collaborating with dance companies and visual artists; to composing and creating music for film and theatre; to working with graphics scores; and to playing with stylist like British guitarist Fred Frith – in a rock opera – American percussionist/vocalist David Moss and the Berlin-based King Übü Örchestrü.

Welcomed into Montera’s sound world, the reedist proves that concentrating on pastoralism hasn’t dulled his chops or idea flow. As a matter of fact, one track, “Roman/chapitre 7”, suggest what would happen if he brought this new-found toughness to folklore imagainaire. Methodically he pushes out measured breaths that form themselves into obbligatos, as Montera’s electronic waveforms pulse in the background, like tremolo violins. Advancing resonating guitar licks, Montera’s string-fraying actions soon concurrently resonate with Sclavis’ quivering, hissing reed tones. Three-quarters of the way through however, the reedist suddenly activates a legato, mid-range clarinet tone, which is played as straight as he would in a classical recital. Bell-like resonation and single-string clear-toned touches are the fretman’s response until a single tongue slap signals the conclusion.

Vocalized phrasing into the body tube, circular breathing and coloratura note bites characterize other reed solutions to Montera’s electronica-oriented interface. Buzzing loops, multiplied imput signals and shifting drones arise from his plugged in equipment, not forgetting phaser and feedback extensions from the guitar itself.

Sometimes, as on “Roman/chapitre 12”, at points both men become percussionists. Montera’s guitar string tapping is met by key tapping from Sclavis until the integrated result begins to resemble a coffee percolator. Choked pitches climb into the realm of aviary cries, until tongue slaps and key resonation on the clarinetist’s part draw out heightened, slurred fingering from the guitarist.

Elsewhere, reed spetrofluctuation turns to thin, extended breaths that meld with mechanized loops, pulses and buzzes. Alternately, back-of throat growls turn to gasping tongue flutters and corkscrewing reed twitters, as knob-turning delay dribbles distorted guitar tones throughout. Mooing glottal electronics multiply and traverse so much territory elsewhere that Sclavis’ reed contributions must make a counterclockwise path around the clanging sidebands.

“Roman/chapitre 12” on the other hand, finds the clarinetist apparently sucking in notes rather than expelling them as Montera’s sharp bottleneck guitar licks are accentuated with hammered blows on the instrument’s body.

Climax of sorts is reached with “Roman/chapitre 10”, which is more than 10½ minutes of staccato reed trills and glissandi unfolding on top of ebbing and flowing electronic reverb flanges and yelps. Introducing circular breathing, the reed man detonates round after round of twittering and chirruping without pause. Abrasive shakes and rumbles characterize the electronics’ mechanical loops and phase shifting that consume more and more aural space. Concentrating his vibrations, Sclavis’ higher pitches match Montera’s shriller flutters. Descending to the chalumeau register, glottal punctuation solidifies the reedist’s harder interface, swiftly terminating the face-off.

A meeting of equals as well as exposure of a different role for Sclavis, Roman will impress committed Free Music followers. It should also be heard and welcomed by listeners familiar with the reedist in other situations… and who aren’t easily shocked.