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Drawing upon a pool of close associates, players of wide ranging experience, from whom he perms groups appropriate for each project, Louis Sclavis has, over the last 15 years, created a body of work unique in the history of French jazz. 'The projects change,' he has said, 'but the musicians stay the same - most of the time.' In fact, the cast of characters shifts, from record to record and on 'L'affrontement des prétandants' he introduces a new quintet: only bassist Bruno Chevillon is retained from Sclavis's previous ECM discs. 'Inviting different musicians allows me to reinforce and enrich the proposition.' That proposition was substantial from the beginning. Sclavis has paid more attention to the role of composition and arrangement than many of his colleagues in jazz but then, as he has said, 'I was never a 'real' jazz musician in the first place' ' which of course raises questions of definitions. A Herald Tribune portrait opined that the young Sclavis 'followed Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez rather than John Coltrane' and Sclavis's study of modern music has been thorough, but it is clear from the spiralling soprano sax on 'Hommage à Lounès Matoub' and 'Maputo Introduction' on the present disc that the Coltrane legacy hasn't escaped him entirely: how could it'

Sclavis, born 1953, studied classical clarinet in his native Lyon, came to jazz via Sidney Bechet and was transfixed at age 17 by the music of Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus. From there he moved backwards and forwards through jazz history. He played with Michel Portal, Chris MacGregor, the Workshop de Lyon, appeared with Cecil Taylor's magisterial European Orchestra in 1988, and continues to play free improvisation as part of an ongoing personal research. Free playing is one of many music-making methodologies that Sclavis employs; he also makes use of elements and influences drawn from European art music from the renaissance to the 21st century, and of folklore real and imaginary, as well as the jazz tradition. He's as likely to pay homage to Rameau as to Ellington, and has done both in previous projects. His numerous musical associations have included work with Trio de Clarinets (with Jacques di Donato and Armand Angster), Pierre Favre, Aldo Romano and Henri Texier, Dave Douglas, Jean-Marc Montera, Arkady Shilkloper, Daniel Humair, Dino Saluzzi, Fred Frith and many others.

Several of Sclavis's earlier records have had an overriding subject matter or have proceeded from a musical-philosophical standpoint illustrated or argued out in the playing. It's not the case this time. 'L'affrontement des prétendants' has more in common with such discs as 'Rouge' or 'Acoustic Quartet' where the principal aim was to introduce the ensemble, and the leader is excited by the range of possibility of his newest line-up.The album's enigmatic title does not lend itself readily to translation. Who are these confrontational 'pretenders'' And should the term be read in the sense of 'those with a claim to a throne or title'' And if so, is it the Sclavis band members who are staking their claim here' Louis Sclavis prefers not to specify. Let listeners and critics make their own interpretations, he says.The first solo statement on the first track (also the title track) certainly serves to introduce a powerful 'new' presence. Trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo will seem to non-French listeners to have sprung fully formed out of nowhere. His style has the dark growls and slurs that seem to reach back in jazz history to players like Bubber Miley and Cootie Williams (sources Lester Bowie and Leo Smith also mined) and he clearly has tremendous facility. 'A beautiful player,' Sclavis says, 'and getting stronger by the day'. Cappozzo, born 1954, has been a long time member of the Lyon-based association L'ARFI (Association à la Recherche d'un Folklore Imaginaire) and plays with two of its key bands ' La Marmite Infernale, and the Trio Apollo.

'Distances' is a beautiful duet for Sclavis's clarinet and the cello of Vincent Courtois. Courtois (born 1968) has been recognised as one of the most outstanding exponents of his instrument in jazz and jazz-related settings over the last decade and has recorded prolifically. He has five albums as a leader and appears on more than 30 others with musicians ranging from Michel Petrucciani to Rabih Abou-Khalil via Christian Escoudé and Khaled. He has furthermore performed in concert with Tomasz Stanko, Martial Solal, Joachim Kuhn, Jim Black, Dominique Pifarély and others.

Bruno Chevillion solos on 'Hors les murs', a powerful feature for his exemplary bass work. In addition to his work with Sclavis and a burgeoning cast of international associates including Michel Portal, Joachim Kuhn, Paul Motian, Frances Marie Uiitti, Barre Phillips, Tim Berne, Ray Anderson, and Dave Douglas. Chevillon has been playing solo concerts since 1994. Solo bass is a demanding format, and his assurance on 'Hors les murs' is a testimony to the depth of his experience in the unaccompanied zone.

Central to the album is the seventeen minute suite 'Hommage à Lounès Matoub', dedicated to the Algerian protest singer who was murdered in 1998. The rigorously independent Matoub, who lived for a time in Paris, was highly critical of a succession of corrupt and repressive regimes in Algeria and equally opposed to militant fundamentalist Islam. His songs were unsparingly outspoken. Both controversial and highly popular (not least amongst the Berber minority whose rights he championed), Lounès Matoub amassed dangerous enemies as well as followers. Shot by the police in 1988, kidnapped by assailants (who also murdered Rai singer Chab Hasni) in 1994, Matoub was finally gunned down four years later by a dozen assassins outside his native village, and died at the age of 42. The government blamed 'terrorists', the public blamed the government, and thousands rioted in the streets. The opening 'movement' of Scalvis's tribute is informed by a deep sorrow ' conveyed particularly in the soulful playing of Courtois, Chevillon, and Cappozzo. The piece moves through North African rhythms with Merville's beats suggestive of the pulse of frame drums, and progresses toward a conclusion that is distinctly triumphant in tone, leaving us with, one feels, a celebration of Matoub's spirit and courage.

'Maputo Introduction' (delivered as a fleet soprano solo) and 'Maputo'( a vehicle for interval-leaping bass clarinet over broken time drums) also touch on African subject matter. The capital of Mozambique has of course been frequently in the news in the last year, both as a disaster area (more than two million made homeless by floods) and latterly as a site of summit meetings aimed at resolving political crises in Rwanda and the Congo. Though the music reveals no programmatic intention, Sclavis has been a regular visitor to Africa since 1990, particularly in the group with Aldo Romano and Henri Texier, and is naturally affected by what he has seen and heard there. In his titles, he sometimes draws attentions to issues in the way a Coltrane or Rollins or Mingus might once have done. Didacticism is avoided.

Finally , 'La mémoire des mains' is a three way improvisation by Sclavis, Courtois and François Merville, a speeding piece where interaction takes place at an intuitive/instinctive level ' the experienced hand, as much as the mind, dictating its flow. To this modest afterword, Merville brings a wealth of knowledge gleaned in diverse contexts. He was originally a classical percussionist and his credits include work with l'Ensemble Inter-Contemporain under the direction of Pierre Boulez, jazz with Jacky Terrasson, improvising with Noel Akchoté and more.

Sclavis knows how to make the most of his players' gifts and stories, interweaves them into something larger. Unsurprising, perhaps, that Ellington is amongst the jazz musicians he most admires: Louis Sclavis is similarly amongst the outstanding instrumentalists of his day, yet in the context of his other achievements this is almost incidental. His instrument is really the ensemble: he knows how to make his group sing, uniquely.