If we want to keep things convenient, we would label Louis Sclavis as a jazz musician. He plays the clarinet and the saxophone, he is signed to the ECM label, he’s collaborated with Henri Texier—this all more or less jibes with most people’s criteria of a modern jazz artist. But the quicker you let go of this idea, the better. Pressing play on a Louis Sclavis release a guarantees that much more than just jazz will come tumbling out the door. And when we’re talking about the 2014 quartet album Silk and Salt Melodies, we’re also absorbing a breathtaking culmination of Sclavis’ 39 years in the music business. It’s a common practice to lionize the young in the field of jazz, to be swept up in musicians who are “beyond their years”. But French reedist Louis Sclavis is one of those guys who help pivot the spotlight to those who actually have those years logged into their career. If you can’t tell what I’m getting at, it’s that Silk and Salt Melodies is a unquestionable masterpiece. One listen is all that’s required.
Since it was first christened and then set off to sail, Third Stream music has come under too much scrutiny. You would think that music 20th century music aficionados would open a place in their hearts and minds for a cross-section of improvisational jazz and composed classical musics. Alas, it’s been an uphill battle. Even when Jon Hassell decided to drop a pinch of World music into the mix only to develop what he called “Fourth World”, it remained an art form for an outsider’s outsider. But Louis Sclavis is not an outsider. His compositions, be they drawn from jazz, classical, African or South American sources, come with no pretensions. Not once during Silk and Salt Melodies‘s 62 minutes is there a you’re-not-good-enough-to get-this moment. Yet there is so much going on, both within the songs and within Sclavis’s quartet, that the inviting nature of the music can be an achievement on its own.
And what a band it is. While Sclavis handles a variety of clarinets, he’s sometimes reluctant to make himself the star of his own show. Gilles Coronado plays the guitar, quite uniquely too, while Benjamin Moussay covers so much of the canvas with the piano. Keyvan Chemirani is the entire rhythm section. Silk and Salt Melodies is not what many would call a rhythmic album, but parts of it are rhythmically driven. Sometimes startlingly so. Notice how there is no bass player. If these guys want a bottom end, they need to rely on what they have—Moussay’s left hand, Sclavis’s bass clarinet and maybe Coronado trying the lower strings. I listened to Silk and Salt Melodies for weeks before I realized this, that’s how full this quartet sounds on their own.
Compositionally, every track is a highlight. The album certainly doesn’t start out with a bang. “Le Parfum De L’Éxil” opens with that searching feeling of ebb and flow that doesn’t find its anchor until it’s three minutes deep. But when it appears that most of the piece will belong to Coronado, the guitar and the clarinet pair up for a delightful, spidery melody. “L’ Homme Sud” and “L’ Autre Rive” are played just as close to the chest, showing a the quartet’s distinct talent of creating atmosphere. “Sel Et Soie” is Chemirani’s chance to shine, as is another compositional component of Sclavis’s. Built on top of a steady knock that sits somewhere between andante and allegro, Chemirani is allowed some flourishes between the beats. Sclavis weaves the oddest melody around this pulse, and that fact that I find myself recalling it after just a few listens is a testament to Sclavis’s writing. “Cortège”‘s melodies is made from just as many fits and starts, with sixteenth-note figures made from just three notes bounce around the scale. But with me this bizarre figure stays.
These complicated yet memorable melodies represent only a fraction of what goes on in Silk and Salt Melodies. This is a rich album, filled with quiet soulful guitar/clarinet dialogues and simmering piano rumbles. The sound is both laid-back and tense. The ensemble is sprase yet colorful. The music itself is complex but wholly inviting. Listening to it is to witness a perfection in alignment. Put Manfred Eicher in the control booth and you have a winner.