Michael Mantler: Review (ECM 1813)


Michael Mantler
Review (1968-2000)

Robert Wyatt voice
Susi Hyldgaard voice, accordion
Michael Mantler trumpet
Bjarne Roupé guitar
Per Salo piano
Mona Larsen voice
Kim Kristensen piano, synthesizers
Jack Bruce voice
Per Jørgensen voice
Don Preston voice, synthesizers
John Greaves voice, bass
Karen Mantler voice, piano
Alexander Balanescu violin
Rick Fenn guitar
Marianne Faithfull voice
Nick Mason drums
Mike Stern guitar
Carla Bley piano, synthesizers, voice
Steve Swallow bass
Larry Coryell guitar
Tony Williams drums
Kevin Coyne voice
Chris Spedding guitar
Ron McClure bass
Terje Rypdal guitar
Jack DeJohnette drums
Don Cherry trumpet
Pharoah Sanders tenor saxophone
Jazz Composer´s Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra
Balanescu Orchestra
Danish Radio Concert Orchestra
The Danish Radio Big Band
Chamber Music and Songs Ensemble
Radio Symphony Orchestra Frankfurt

Every once in a while, an album comes along that changes our view of what jazz, or any genre for that matter, can be. Review isn’t one of those albums. It’s much better.

One of contemporary music’s most accessible provocateurs, Michael Mantler is like an old friend and an enigma in one. ECM’s vital retrospective compresses over thirty years of his coal-throated sounds into a gallery of jagged diamonds. With a roster to make even the most eclectic enthusiast blush with delight, Mantler assembles a powerful resume of musical forces, intentions, artifacts, techniques, and emotional ammunition. He is the sonic equivalent of a Robert Altman or Peter Greenaway. Like the latter, he works with pictures within pictures, splashes refractions of time and place across his screens, enhances images with the written word. He makes audible the diaries of our intellectual journeys, folds every page into a paper airplane, and launches it from heights far beyond what we ever imagined as children.

From the first moments of the piano-driven, brass-infused jewel of musical concentration that is “Unsaid,” we feel the broad strokes with which Mantler paints, and the perpetual reinvention that cloaks his every move. No single mood dominates from thereon out. “Introductions,” for example, is a scrapbook of varied histories, of dislocation and dying joys, the story of a war-torn world in which home no longer remains a stable category. Against its beautiful harp-infused orchestral background, a kaleidoscope of characters airs its grievances. It’s as if one were to throw into a pot the music of Meredith Monk and Heiner Goebbels and watch what results. As this broth comes to a boil, we get a most potent whiff of unknown spices. Each instrument is its own flavor, adding a dash of autobiography to the thickening brew. This is a stunning piece, one exemplary of Mantler’s genius. “Solitudine / Lontano / L’Illuminata Rugiada / Proverbi” is a chain of laments splashing in the limpid pool of self-awareness, threading circumstance with the wave of a drunken stroll. A mournful violin lays itself down before a pause brings us to the more resolute “Speechless.” An unspoken word rolling off the tongue only when it is too late, it leads us to one of the album’s many insightful instrumental pieces. Said excerpt from “Folly Seeing All This” (1992) lifts its weight as a foot from mud, with no other choice but to step down and repeat the process. “Movie Two” (1977) is another magnificent incident, marked by nimble drumming from Tony Williams, heading a tight rhythm section beneath a crunchy guitar solo from Larry Coryell, not to mention Mantler’s own vividly imaginary trumpeting. A few briefer interludes make their voiceless presences known. “Love Ends (excerpt),” a bittersweet duet for clarinet and piano, is a memory one can’t quite picture. A treat from the unpretentiously titled “Alien” (1985) sports the nostalgic synths of Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston. “Twenty” brims with the youth of its eponymous age. It acerbic electric guitar and heavy bass almost tumble over one another in their search for gold. But then there is “One Symphony” (1998), from which he hear but one fascinating orchestral snippet. Characterized by vibrant energy and mallet-heavy percussion, its jaunty instrumentation titillates at an intersection of the bowed, the blown, and the struck. Echoing pizzicato strings transcend the music’s outer barriers, puncturing its paper-like firmament with simulacra of starlight. “Preview” (1968) is another bundle of archival explosives. Its incendiary tenor sax solo, courtesy of the legendary Pharoah Sanders, runs amok, incurring not a few brass concussions along the way. And as the drums bubble from the earth around him like a latent volcano, Sanders astonishes with the intensity of his (in)difference.

Of all the vocal talent represented here, Robert Wyatt is foremost. His incautious duet with Susi Hyldgaard in “I’m glad you’re glad” is its own wonder. Here, a relationship’s self-reflexivity is thrown in its protagonists’ faces with veiled exclamations of happiness and return. Wyatt reads from Harold Pinter’s play Silence in “Sometimes I See People” (1976), twisting morose obsessions with social growth and fallacies of identity twist into a complicated braid. Another effective reading, this time run through a flange, in “The Sinking Spell” (from Mantler’s 1975/76 The Hapless Child) offers an Edward Gorey tale to the morbid believer in all of us. Its terrestrial charm, set aloft by flights on electric guitar, slingshots its sentiments across the universe toward vocal ends. Backed by none other than Carla Bley, Terje Rypdal, Jack DeJonette, and Steve Swallow, Wyatt stretches until he leaves his own nebular mark in the evening sky. A trio of miniatures—“PSS,” an excerpt from “Comrade,” and “A l’Abattoir”—featuring the voice of Marianne Faithfull makes for some further incisive dramaturgy. Behind a thinly processed veneer, each is a micro-opera of galactic proportions. Jack Bruce lays down his own heavy tracks with the words of Samuel Beckett in “Number Six – Part Four” (1973), in which he is paired with trumpeter Don Cherry. Finally, the lilting strings that introduce “It makes no difference to me” fade into their reverberant chamber behind indecisive voices, wandering in the confusion of split paths like the accordion that continues their journey when they fall silent. A love for recitative underscores these narratively minded pieces in brightest neon.

The real meta-statement, however, lies in “Understanding.” A piece about and of transition, it achieves its resolution through the fallibility of the utterance and its audio redeployment. It is a Tower of Babel laid on its side and spread thin into an auditory crepe. Mantler manages to be both cinematic and literary here, further skirting an undefined space between the two. As a translator myself, I feel this piece reaches for my heart like no other.

Mantler is a musical treasure, a singular voice comprised of many. His is not music that simply speaks to the listener, but music that speaks and listens to itself.

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