Abe Maneri and Tom Jameson: Fourteen Bagatelles

Adventurous ECM listeners will undoubtedly be familiar with Joe and Mat Maneri. The father and son team were known for offering their uncompromising microtonal adventures without fear, expectation, or agenda. The music sang with a voice within a voice. Although Joe has sadly passed from this realm, his relentless passion and pursuit of knowledge live on in his recorded work and in the endeavors of his multi-talented sons. Among that progeny stands Abe Maneri, a musically unquenchable soul who has been quietly making independent recordings for years on his own quest for sonic truth.

Music has followed Abe, as Abe has followed music, his entire life. An instrumental renaissance man, he plays violin, cello, piano, recorders, guitar, percussion, clarinet, and also sings. Collaborations have placed him alongside likeminded sound-seekers, including Jessica Jones, Sabir Mateen, Assif Tsahar, and John Medeski, not to mention Joe and Mat themselves. On his latest, Fourteen Bagatelles, Abe is joined by longtime friend and guitarist Tom Jameson. Recorded in Abe’s home studio, the project develops a profound direction in an artist of already broad-ranging interests.

Fourteen Bagatelles

The bagatelle is a short musical selection, typically for piano, with an etudinal, airy feel. It doesn’t reach out and grab so much as caress the listener with intimations of larger mythologies. The form began with Beethoven and its suitcase has received stickers from such other composers as Smetana and Bartók along the way. Abe would be the last to place his efforts among them, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t accept Fourteen Bagatelles as a worthy contribution to the ever-growing canon of the genre. The album is, regardless of its ancestry, one of deep listening that builds a discursive blend of jazz and classical elements out of “semi-improvised forms.”

Although Abe’s hats are as varicolored as the talent with whom he has performed, consistent in his work ethic is a staunch commitment to bringing out the human element of music making. This is especially true of the new album. Abe tells me as much during a recent phone interview:

“As a musician, in general—and perhaps this comes from my father’s tradition—one of the most important parts of constructing music is honesty of expression. There was a pervasive emotion Tom and I were trying to express, something a little bleak but not entirely hopeless. Often lost in the contemporary dialogue is the human component, and so we consciously set out with no other agenda than to make the best music we could make.”

Indeed, Tom’s soft anchorage in “Melodica and Guitar #1” (all tracks are so named for their combinations, with Abe playing the first listed instrument, Tom the second) is the firmament against which Abe dips his ladle into the horizon. So begins an experience of great beauty and tact, an evocation of places where one can feel caught, certain of some emotional sediment just below the waterline of form. Given its melancholic tinge, these bagatelles more readily recall Valentin Silvestrov’s, which have a mournful undercurrent yet remain true to the essence of their space. It’s a soft reminder that “airy” doesn’t necessarily mean emotionally vapid. “There’s a lot of control that goes into making something seem light,” Abe agrees, “and I think that’s the characteristic. I’m thinking about Haydn and Mozart, both of whom wrote an enormous amount of music which seemed ‘light’ yet in which there is incredible tension, sustained beauty, and control. It’s powerful because you can experience it as background music or as something more complex, depending on how you listen.”

Abe’s words make me think about my recent foray into yoga, a practice which requires unseen control in order to maintain its economy of movement. Mind and body resist the holds, storms brewing in every muscle, but eventually you learn to overcome it (or, rather, become it) and enter into a new self-awareness.

“I can relate to that,” Abe responds. “I think of the melodica tracks in particular, so different from the music I normally do, in which I am freely releasing energy into the air. Playing with Tom takes a certain level of restraint and actually there’s more energy happening within my center that’s not being released in the same kind of push, but it’s being released nonetheless. There’s a unique tension in playing with him. I find myself holding all the ideas in before letting them out. It’s more strategic.”

In light of this, “Melodica and Keyboard” Nos. 1 & 2 sound like fairytales, touched by wind and water and played as if recited. The first is a winding stair into an attic where a single window affords the intermittent blink of a lighthouse. Every sweep leaves a trail along the floor, marking the development of a solitary thought. This heavenly track is the apotheosis of the project. Keyboards creep into a few others, notably twice with guitar in gestures interludinal (“Keyboard and Guitar #2”) and of quieter luminescence (“Keyboard and Guitar #1”). The latter ends a mostly bronzed program with hints of silver. I ask Abe about sequencing.

“It was really constructed and labored. The first track was one of the first things we recorded. There were a few like that which were just obvious in terms of placement, and they worked better the more we sat with them. The last track was always going to be the last track. And from there, it was about logically getting from Track 4 to Track 14, thus forming an organic 45-minute piece.”

Taking this album at the surface level, one might say that Tom is only an accompanist, but with each listen his melodic contributions, his equal level of communication, becomes obvious. Tom is, in a way, the tree to Abe’s cherry blossoms, falling in sheets of pink. Abe elaborates:

“In some ways with Tom there’s a lot of push and pull. For the most part, each of our methods of improvisation and playing do stem from very different mentalities. Tom reasons out complicated passages before coming to the table—at least with guitar, which is not his first instrument. It’s more like orchestration than accompaniment, and my job is to find the best tension within it. We have been playing one way or another for nine or ten years. After a while, it didn’t matter which instruments we played; it was clear we were the same people.”

The lion’s share of the album is realized through combinations of various recorders and guitar. Those with soprano, despite their higher pitches, are actually the most earthly, each a cavern of wingbeats. There is also an elasticity to these tunes that gives them great endurance. The alto foregrounds relatively distorted reflections, which nevertheless retain their shape and open our ears to lessons of pattern recognition. In them are distant, pastoral memories. Tenor and bass recorders make one appearance apiece, moving from elliptical arpeggios and Renaissance accents to a grammar that is almost gloomy in its parsing.

The greatest comfort of Fourteen Bagatelles is that, by the end of its mesmerizing, lyrical dream, listeners can take comfort in the fact they were awake all along. This album is a flashlight in the dark, a means to an end, which is but another beginning. It is for this reason that, pressing PLAY for another go, I find my thoughts wandering to Abe’s father. I distinctly remember the first time I heard Angles of Repose and the new language it was espousing—a language that, although one I’ll never speak, I can at least attempt to translate. I can’t help but conclude with a question about what Joe passed on to him.

“It affects everything. In terms of how I play music, it would be crippling to do anything in relationship to someone that good. It was hard in many ways and took me years to even have the guts to call myself a musician. It took adulthood and separation in order to find my unique voice underneath but I’m also afraid of where I come from and what I learned. Anytime I’m playing, I’m cognizant of the joy of learning music early, of being exposed to radical concepts of improvisation, but he was also an extremely knowledgeable human. His level of knowledge was just so advanced. On the other hand, he was extremely kind and listened very intently, never pushing anyone from what they loved to do. Anytime I’m playing, there are always different voices of Joe that permeate my sensibilities. For one, there is the teacher of harmony. Then there was the Joe Marneri Quartet Joe. Then there was the religious Joe, who had a whole other way of talking. And then there was Joe my dad. The teacher, the radical, the man of God, and dad. Each of these encourage and discourage in different ways. A lot of my determination comes from not thinking about that too much and in being proud of who I am, making music just plain different from that legacy but also coming from it.”

And has he changed as a musician since becoming a father himself?

“It’s had the most positive effect. Almost everything I do is done within that great irony of parenthood: having one twentieth of the free time but making the most of that time, which becomes more focused. Nothing has played more of a role in my creative life, funnily enough, than having no time. It gives you a sense of purpose and direction, imparts an energy, a freshness of purpose.”

It is a purpose we can feel in every note. The cycle continues.

(To order Fourteen Bagatelles and more, check out Abe Maneri online here.)

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