Michael Mantler: Something There (WATT/13)

Something There

Michael Mantler
Something There

Michael Mantler trumpet
Carla Bley piano
Mike Stern guitar
Steve Swallow bass
Nick Mason drums
Strings of the London Symphony Orchestra
Michael Gibbs arranger and conductor
Recorded February through June 1982 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Strings recorded and album mixed July and July 1982 at Britannia Row, London
Engineer: Nick Griffiths
Assistant: Michael Johnson
Produced by Carla Bley
Release date: January 4, 1983

something there
out there
out where
the head what else
something there somewhere outside
the head

After taking us to the movies a second time, trumpeter and composer Michael Mantler helms a superlative quintet, this time with guitarist Mike Stern, pianist Carla Bley, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Nick Mason. Add to them the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of arranger Michael Gibbs, and you have a balancing act of observation and exposition that is sure to please a fan of anyone involved. Mantler possesses a unique ability to cut through the bread of sound with a knife that is at once serrated and bloodless. One need only grab a slice of “Twenty,” one of five numbered loaves, to see that each has its own grain, thickness of crust, and shape. The sensation of looking on the inside to describe what is on the outside has rarely been so lucid in Mantler’s work than here. Gibbs’s kindred spirit ensures that every fold of dough rises by virtue of a yeast that is more theatrical than cinematic—which is to say, prone to indeterminate beauty of human error. Mantler’s entrance as soloist is late, touching the horizon like a setting sun before night sets in on “Twenty One.” The guitar takes on an anguished quality, as if its impending dream were a grave in which to bury an effigy of the past.

at the faint sound so brief
it is gone and the whole globe
not yet bare
the eye
opens wide
till in the end
nothing more
shutters it again

“Nineteen” is notable for its propulsive structure and tessellated theme, one that rolls through the head without impediment. Artfully driven by Swallow and Mason, it glues together a full diorama for Stern’s roaming pick. Mantler’s selective applications ring out with poetic authority in what amounts to a masterstroke. “Seventeen” is another geometric wonder, replete with sparkling cymbals and angled lines.

so the odd time
out there
somewhere out there
like as if
as if
not life

The downtempo funk of “Eighteen” paves a smooth landing strip for the title track, which embodies the feeling of speech loosed into the air as rockets of meaning. Like the words of Samuel Beckett pillaring this review (and from which this album’s title was taken), it understands that utterances are physical locations worth exploring by instruments of tongue and teeth. There is indeed something there, but only when we acknowledge it to be nowhere.

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