Bow River Falls
From the Banff Workshop and its 2002 director, Dave Douglas, comes Bow River Falls, an appropriately bare, spacious quartet performance actually recorded inside the Canadian national park. Banff has its own recording studio? Who knew? For the rhythm section, Douglas recruited Pacific Northwesterners: drummer Dylan van der Schyff, who also contributes with his laptop, and cellist Peggy Lee. Thanks to some timely cash from the French government, Douglas was able to complete the band with reedist Louis Sclavis.
Steve Lacy's "Blinks" opens the CD-appropriately enough since his dryly quirky small-group music is a source for this sort of thing. Douglas wanted to emphasize the collaborative nature of this project. Having so many distinctive composers on hand, Douglas splits the program between tunes by himself, Lee and Sclavis. It's great fun hearing the band go at one another's instantly recognizable themes. Lee's music focuses on texture and serves as atmospheric interludes between Sclavis' and Douglas' playful, melodic music. Douglas' delicate melodies put the band in the mood for balladry; Sclavis' music gives the impression of having been cleverly assembled from stylistic odds and ends from the Continent and invites a bit more chaos; Lee provides an attractive solo voice and rich counterpoint; van der Schyff alternates between unvarnished swing and the touches of abstracted, naturelike sounds from his laptop (a particularly nice touch). The sly, Viennese sound of Douglas' trumpet dominates the proceedings, however, marking this as a scaled-down, low-concept Douglas project-in spirit if not quite in name. Somewhat disappointingly, a deferential Sclavis plays the sideman's role, saving his saltier playing for his own projects.
If you're curious about Sclavis' work as a leader, a great place to start would be the Frenchman's latest recording, the particularly pungent Napoli's Walls. Between 1987 and 1995, French painter Ernest Pignon-Ernest wandered around the Italian city of Naples, literally applying his artwork to the walls of the city. Pignon-Ernest's scenes depicting suffering and pain in a stark, classical style inspired Sclavis to form a new group and write new music in response. Sclavis has shown a particular talent for putting together remarkable bands tailored to specific projects, and this is no exception. Sclavis retained only cellist Vincent Courtois from his previous group, adding the outsized personality of Mederic Collignon, a vocalist, percussionist and pocket-trumpet player, as well as guitarist Hasse Poulsen.
Collignon will catch most ears on first pass. When he isn't recalling players as disparate as Kenny Wheeler or Don Cherry with his horn work, he emits otherworldly vocals, often distorted with electronic effects, which seem to draw on every vocal tradition from Paris to Tunisia. Poulsen and Courtois, equally as flexible though in a more modest way, contribute just as much. The guitarist plays a steel-string acoustic like a classical player, which gives tunes like "Kennedy in Napoli" a dusty, vibrant African-folk sound. Courtois often plays in the upper register sounding like a violin, and has a creative way with electronics and distortion. Sclavis and the band roll folk melodies, spare electronic beats, somber classical interludes and aggressive soloing-not least from Sclavis himself-into something that really doesn't sound like anything else.