After recording two great albums of dark, moody, clarinet-centric jazz — 2007’s Currents and 2011’s Post Scriptum — the Wolfert Brederode Quartet either called it quits or decided to take an extended vacation or did something because they haven’t made an album since. But fans of that foursome can rejoice, sort of, as a spiritual successor has emerged with Characters On A Wall (CD, LP, digital), the new album by atmospheric clarinetist Louis Sclavis and his similarly-configured quartet.
Group Photos Credit: © Luc Jennepin / ECM Records
Recorded in October of 2018,
Characters On A Wall finds the iconic clarinet player teaming with pianist Benjamin Moussay, double bassist Sarah Murcia, and drummer Christophe Lavergne. But while this isn’t the first time he’s worked with some of these fine musicians, it is the first time he’s worked with this configuration. While his 2014 album Silk And Salt Melodies was credited to the Louis Sclavis Quartet, that foursome was Sclavis, a percussionist (Keyvan Chemirani), a guitarist (Gilles Corondo), and Characters pianist Benjamin Moussay, albeit in the role of pianist / keyboardist. Similarly, while Sclavis was one of four musicians on 2016’s Ida Lupino, that quartet was comprised of a trombonist (Gianluca Petrella), a pianist (Giovanni Guidi), and a drummer (Gerald Cleaver).
Of course, comparing Characters On A Wall and Louis Sclavis to the Wolfert Brederode Quartet simply because they have the same make-up of musicians and a similar tone pallet does a disservice to both Characters and Sclavis (and to Brederode and his quartet as well). After all, it is Sclavis’ thirteenth album as a leader, and he’s played on nearly as many as a sideman. It’s also not fair to Sclavis’ bandmates on Characters, all accomplished professionals in their own right.
But it’s also hard to listen to Characters On A Wall and not be reminded of Currents and Post Scriptum. (Well, unless you’ve never heard them, of course). Like those albums, Characters On A Wall pairs slow and low clarinet with equally deliberate rhythms and atmospheric piano tones. “L’heure Pasolini,” which opens the Characters, does so with a sad undertone, one that is mirrored by the stark and lonely-sounding “La Dame De Martigues” and the equally contemplative “Extases.”
(It’s also not hard to think of the great albums Fusion, Thesis, and Free Fall by the Jimmy Giuffre 3 when listening to Characters On A Wall, and Louis Sclavis’ similarly slow and moody playing, but then I say that about any album that has a clarinet played in a slow and moody way.)
Characters On A Wall also takes inspiration from from the art of French Fluxus and Situationist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, something Brederode and his foursome didn’t do on their albums, but Sclavis has before. On 2002’s Napoli’s Walls, Sclavis teamed with yet another quartet — Hasse Poulsen on guitar, Vincent Courtois on cello and electronics, and Mederic Collignon trumpets, percussion, voices, and electronics — though the end result obviously sounds very different from Characters.
The thing is, while Characters On A Wall may fall into similar territory as the Wolfert Brederode Quartet’s albums, and satisfies the same itch, it has a lot of subtle differences that ultimate make Sclavis’ album sound very different from Currents and Post Scriptum.
For starters, Louis Sclavis doesn’t play his clarinet the same way as the W.B.Q.’s Claudio Puntin here (or on any of his albums), and the same can be said for the Moussay, Murcia, and Lavergne and their counterparts: Brederode, Mats Eilertsen, and Samuel Rohrer. Similar, yes, in a broad way, but not the same.
There are also times on Characters On A Wall when things get far less moody and atmospheric than Brederode and Co. did on their albums. The middle of “Shadows And Lines,” for instance, gets a bit playful, and then a big angry-sounding, while “Prison” has the peppy feeling of something Miles Davis might’ve done on one of his Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’, or Steamin’ albums.
Things on Characters On A Wall also get a bit more avant garde, relatively speaking. “Esquisse 1” is nearly devoid of structure, and thus sounds like it would be just as welcome on the Gone Girl or Vietnam War soundtrack albums by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Then there’s “Darwich Dans La Ville,” which closes the album with an off-kilter rhythm and melody that makes it sound like drummer Christophe Lavergne got drunk during lunch, and the rest of the band just played along for the fuck of it.
Though, to be honest, these less-than-moody moments are the least interesting moments on Characters On A Wall. Mostly because they kind of stick out alongside all the other atmospheric tone poems. Not as much as, say, the super upbeat songs “Man On The Moon” and “Ignoreland” did in the middle of R.E.M.’s otherwise dark and mellow album Automatic For The People, but enough that I’ll be inclined to reach for the “skip” button when listening to this disc.
Characters On A Wall is otherwise good enough that I’ll want to listen to it after this review is done. While it may not be the second coming of the Wolfert Brederode Quartet (er, third), it is a beautiful and moody collection of clarinet-centric jazz that certainly scratches an itch.