At 50, Louis Sclavis is something of an institution in his native France, enough in any case to draw ire from certain quarters. A steady stream of albums on labels like ECM and Label Bleu have assured him visibility and his willingness to embrace rhythm, melody and catchiness have ensured the popular success of his "African" trio with Henri Texier and Aldo Romano.
Napoli's Walls is inspired by the artwork of Ernest Pignon-Ernest, photos of which are included in the liner notes. The artist drew harrowingly lifelike charcoal figures directly on the walls of the city, integrating his art into its very fabric. Sclavis' unusually appointed quartet takes off from this idea to create a musical blueprint of an old European city, one whose urban planning is historical and ad hoc and where clubbers seeking out the latest in electronic delights tread on cobblestones leading to an abandoned warehouse built on the site of a 17th century church.
Médéric Collignon is the French jazz scene's latest wildchild. The thirty-something's outsized personality landed him a nomination for Young Musician of the Year, despite not yet having an album under his name. He's a loose cannon, known for disrupting concerts—both onstage and as part of the audience—but also for his trumpet chops and incredible vocalising (which you get a healthy dose of here). He and cellist Vincent Courtois operate machines alongside their acoustic instruments, drawing out beats, loops and effects to fill in the music's gaps. Guitarist Hasse Poulsen remains fairly discreet, generally providing support on acoustic guitar, before unleashing electric flashes to disrupt the too-tranquil proceedings of "Guetteur d'inaperçu".
The album starts out in a rather listening post-unfriendly way, serving up its most forbidding and austere music right away: Courtois plays an ambiguous melody in an eerie environment of gongs and whistles. Suddenly, a corner is turned, the aforementioned club comes into view and a heavy, looped beat buttresses the abstract cello-clarinet melodies. Napoli's Walls is a veritable cornucopia of such unpredictable collisions. On the second track, a roots blues guitar figure is made to morph into a parody of some old Celtic tune. And if you don't like that (and even if you do), it's followed up by the delicate three-way interplay of "Mercè" and "Kennedy in Napoli"'s jangly folk.
Juxtaposing random explorations and guided tours, serious music ("Divinazione Moderna I"'s elegant clarinet and cello) and less serious music ("Divinazione Moderna II"'s folksy reprise of the same material, enriched with Collignon's nearly-sensical vocal madness), drumless daintiness and a clattering beat supporting a stampeding baritone solo: The mixture charms and disorients, full of suspense, frustration and laughter.