French clarinetist Louis Sclavis has composed a lot of music inspired by visual art, including soundtracks for modern and silent movies and a 2003 ECM release, Napoli’s Walls, which chronicles his response to the street frescoes in Naples created by the French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest. With Characters on a Wall, Sclavis extends and alters his musical dance with the public art of Pignon-Ernest. Where Napoli’s Walls restricts its focus to Naples and features voices, brass, and electronics, Characters on a Wall reacts to Pignon-Ernest’s work in different countries via a classic quartet lineup in a more overtly chamber-jazz manner. Sclavis claims an intimate connection to Pignon-Ernest, saying the conceptual inspiration from his countryman’s art crystallizes in him quickly and vividly, “like a photo in a developing bath.”
The results can be axiomatic, as in the elegiac quality of “L’heure Pasolini,” which plays off Pignon-Ernest’s depiction of the Italian poet and filmmaker Pasolini carrying his own corpse. They can be exquisitely nuanced, as in the melancholy minimalism exchanged between pianist Benjamin Moussay and Sclavis on the ballad “La dame de Martingues,” the most impressive example of the clarinetist’s stated goal of going beyond the static imagery to “reveal its internal animating force.”
Sometimes the connections short-circuit logic: The intensity gathered via a refrain eventually yields to one of the program’s more loose-limbed songs, curiously titled “Prison.” Surprises like these are fortunate, of course—who wants literal interpretations of public art in a jazz ensemble? What counts is how the quartet delivers both the formalistic chamber music of “Extases” and a pair of very different group-improvisational snippets (“Esquisse 1” and “Esquisse 2”) with ingenuity. Bassist Sarah Murcia is an arresting stylist as both timekeeper and soloist in the way she uses the stubby throb in her tone. Sclavis performs with virtuosity and restraint, words that also describe the imaginative percussion work by Christophe Lavergne to elevate the closing composition, “Darwhich dans la ville.” Pignon-Ernest may provide the spark, but it’s the band that keeps the flame.
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