French clarinetist Louis Sclavis is commonly regarded as one of the world’s finest jazz players on his instrument. For nearly 40 years, he’s readily swapped styles, from free and straight ahead to classical, soundtracks and world jazz. On his latest release “Sources,” he attempts the difficult synthesis of several of these approaches in an intimate, but not understated, chamber setting.
For the recording, Sclavis forms the Atlas Trio with guitarist Gilles Coronado and pianist Benjamin Moussay, both a couple of decades his junior. Their roles in the serpentine musical arrangements are pretty surprising. Generally, in trios without bass or drums, the piano is a natural choice to provide a broad accompanying texture, with deeper bass notes than the guitar and an ability to provide chordal support that’s rhythmically independent of the left hand lines. In the Atlas Trio, Coronado usually chugs gritty patterns in the low regions while Moussay resides mostly in the same area as the leader, brightly keying the sinuous melody lines in unison with his clarinet. Only at climactic moments does the lower register of the piano sound, and the effect, demonstrated on the album-opening “Pres d’Hagondange” is quite rich and compelling. The sonic depth of this technique is markedly reduced when Moussay switches to electric piano on “La Disparation” and “Sous Influences,” but the crunchy texture is well complemented by subtle drum programming on the title track.
“Sources” is an ECM album, and recordings on Germany’s most venerated label are known for a particular house style. Manfred Eicher, the label’s founder and producer of virtually every release, goes for a round, resonant sound that is at times pleasingly ambient and at times excessively tame. Sclavis’s compositions like “A Road To Karaganda” and “Dresseur De Nuages” fit most neatly in ECM’s world-chamber-jazz box, but even at the most avant-garde moments of “Outside of Maps” there’s a regrettable smoothing of the music’s edge.
Fortunately, the strength of the ensemble is neither novel texture nor border-pushing exploration. Sclavis’s compositions, a natural extension of his film scoring, are the star of the show. They are sophisticated and compact, allowing for a great deal of interaction in and out of the memorable themes. On “Migration,” Moussay and the leader alternately interject brief bursts of baroque improvisation while the other continues to develop the melodies. Coronado slips away from his rhythmic duties to duet with Sclavis on “Quai Sud,” a shift made with the accuracy and sensitivity of a top-class second violinist.
Sclavis manages to pull off this stylistic balancing act through his compositional prowess and the instrumental strength of the Atlas Trio. In the adventure department, it comes off a bit safe and decidedly ECM-flavored. For the creative jazz listener who is more concerned with internal substance than bold artistic statements, “Sources” is well worth a listen or ten.