Karen Mantler: My Cat Arnold (XtraWATT/3)

My Cat Arnold

Karen Mantler
My Cat Arnold

Karen Mantler vocals, harmonica, organ, piano
Eric Mingus vocals
Jonathan Sanborn bass
Ethan Winogrand drums
Marc Muller guitar
Steve Weisberg synthesizers
Steven Bernstein trumpet
Pablo Calogero baritone saxophone
Recorded Spring 1988 by Angela Gomez and Steve Swallow
Mixed by Tom Mark, Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Mastered by Greg Calbi, Sterling Sound, New York, NY
General co-ordination: Michael Mantler
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: November 1, 1989

Karen Mantler, who takes after her father (Michael Mantler) in name and taste for the morose, as after her mother (Carla Bley) in musical spirit, has cobbled herself a pair of shoes that no one else could possibly fill. If Suzanne Vega did late-night cabaret, this might just scratch the surface of what you’ll find on this emblematic debut. Add in the talents of Charles Mingus’s son Eric on vocals and David Sanborn’s son Jonathan on bass, along with a bevy of nuanced musicians, and you get some dusty, forlorn songcraft that burrows into the skin and tattoos it from the underside.

As will become her usual, Mantler hangs out in the dimly lit corners of human experience and describes them as a means of emphasizing the unconditional purity of the relationship she shares with her titular cat Arnold. The most imposing door stands before us in the form of “I Wanna Be Good.” This one-act play of derision between partners spins a funky argument, replete with Greek chorus-like commentary from the band between verbal spars as the boyfriend (played by Mingus) tries to mold her into something she wishes not to be. Their relationship plays out further in “Breaking Up,” for which they swap self-defenses amid a congregation of bass, drums, organ, and the popping baritone saxophone of Pablo Calogero. “Fear Of Pain” takes an even more disturbing turn into domestic violence (Steve Weisberg’s synthesizer delineating a palpable tension throughout). Thankfully, Mingus isn’t always a target of fear, as when he takes on a comedic role in “My Stove,” acting the part of salesman trying to sell her on a variety of stoves (read: thinly veiled stand-ins for men) to the hapless Mantler, who longs for her old stove after it “moved to another town.”

Emotionally honest as these are, the album’s highlights deal with more mundane objects of concern. On “Vacation,” Mantler croons about her desire to get away from it all. Songs like this come across as destitute, because we know the events they describe will never happen. On the flip side, those about overtly sad things are presented as whimsical and airy. A fine example of the latter is “People Die,” which is so unadorned that nothing but emotion comes through. “It’s a fact,” she sings. “Once you’re born there’s no turning back.” These childlike rhymes blister with truth. With so little affect to get in their way, the wisdom of their banality glows.

The title track is an ode to her cat. Described as a “big furry pillow with claws,” he occupies her thoughts 24/7. Mantler’s obsession with Arnold makes the thought of losing him unbearable (and foreshadows the pall of her third album). “Best Of Friends” is a lovely song about her mother and is perhaps the only moment when genuine sunshine peaks through the clouds. Finally, “Green Beans” is a soulful song about—you guessed it—those vegetables so often pushed to the side of a child’s plate. Mingus gives a method performance as the man who hates green beans as much as the woman serving them, bringing us full circle to the reality of a broken world in which Arnold’s purr might be the only hope left.

Mantler’s one-of-a-kind psychoanalysis warms the cerebrum. Noteworthy also is her harmonica playing, which casts a varicolored light across each lyric. More than any other artist in the WATT family, she is an uncompromising outlier who understands that every generation has its story to tell, even if that story will never change.

Steve Swallow: Carla (XtraWATT/2)


Steve Swallow

Carla Bley organ
Steve Swallow bass
Hiram Bullock guitar
Larry Willis piano
Victor Lewis drums
Don Alias percussion
Ida Kavafian violin
Ik-Hwan Bae viola
Fred Sherry cello
Recorded and mixed Winter 1986/87 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound
General co-ordination: Michael Mantler
Produced by Steve Swallow and Carla Bley
Engineered and co-produced by Doug Epstein
Release date: October 1, 1987

This timeless love letter from Steve Swallow to Carla Bley belongs on the shelf alongside Sextet, as both albums emerged from the same sessions. The core band of guitarist Hiram Bullock, pianist Larry Willis, drummer Victor Lewis, and percussionist Don Alias applies, but is augmented by DW-6000 and DW-8000 synthesizers, played by the lifelong lovers of the hour, and a bona fide string trio. Those extra forces enhance the underlying mood with such a high level of atmospheric integrity that the music they wrap themselves around is elevated to an emotional state far beyond nostalgia.

The quirky cover photograph makes more sense once the luxuriance of “Deep Trouble” unravels its melody like an unwanted cigarette. The tension between bliss and self-deprecation is real, and reminds us how falling in love is sometimes the greatest threat to everyday equilibrium. Bley’s fresh-out-of-the-oven organ—both here and in such tracks as “Fred And Ethel,” “Afterglow,” and “Last Night”—is as romantic as it is mysterious. Yet her spotlight is only as bright as Swallow’s compositions, which have the strength of a full moon. Whether coaxing a head-nodding rhythm from Alias and Lewis in “Count The Ways” or deferring to his partner’s sense of humor in “Hold It Against Me,” Swallow assures the listener of total comfort through slick key changes and unforced propulsions.

His ability to craft an environment is especially complex in “Crab Alley” and “Read My Lips.” With every shift of gear, he drives deeper into the chambers of his psyche, sticking a hand out of the window every now and then to take a Polaroid in his search for an authentic sense of self to lay down at his lover’s altar. And as Willis’s pianism propels the band into the stratosphere, we realize there’s still so much to discover within ourselves.

Carla is a crowning achievement for Swallow, through and through, and is about as enchanting as jazz gets. Something our hearts have heard before, because it hears us so well.

Steve Weisberg: I Can’t Stand Another Night Alone (In Bed With You) (XtraWATT/1)

I Can't Stand

Steve Weisberg
I Can’t Stand Another Night Alone (In Bed With You)

Lew Soloff trumpet (solo on “Trapped”)
Baikida Carroll trumpet (solo on “Table”)
Gary Valente trombone
John Clark French horn
Wolfgang Puschnig alto saxophone, flute
Howard Johnson baritone saxophone, contrabass clarinet, tuba
Hiram Bullock guitar
Steve Weisberg piano, synthesizer, organ (on “Table” and “You Can’t”)
Steve Swallow bass
Victor Lewis drums (on “I Can’t Stand”)
Anton Fier drums (on “Table” and “Trapped”)
Norman David tenor saxophone
Neil Leonard clarinet
Eric Goldberg accordion
Karen Mantler organ (on “I Can’t Stand” and “Trapped”)
Mike Stanzilis bass (on “Trapped”)
Jack Cook drums (on “You Can’t”)
Ken Winokur percussion
Carol Capstein viola
Priscilla Chew cello
Frank Luther double bass
Recorded and mixed November/December 1985 by Tom Mark at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Produced by Carla Bley and Steve Swallow
Release date: November 1, 1986

In 1986, the WATT sublabel—a dedicated showcase for the musical projects of Carla Bley and Michael Mantler—gave birth to the sub-sublabel XtraWATT. To celebrate this momentous occasion, the inaugural release was handed off to Steve Weisberg. The onetime New York fixture, who continues to perform regularly with his orchestra (only now in Los Angeles, where he relocated permanently in 2003), is perhaps best known as a prodigious arranger who has worked with such diverse talents as Hal Willner, Marianne Faithfull, Howard Tate, and Suzy Williams, to name but a few.

The unmistakable trombone of Gary Valente opens the title track with a swanky, after-midnight atmosphere. Boiling with the tension of finding love in an urban sprawl, the music welcomes a large-scale ensemble, many members of which are on loan from the Carla Bley Big Band. Expertly blended strings and a bass line from Steve Swallow kick off an evocative groove through sunnier climates. The accordion of Eric Goldberg adds to the seaside palette and invites us on a journey to faraway places where dreams live on despite the dank reality outside our doors. Weisberg’s warped synthesizer reminds us that beauty always fades.

“Table For One” and “Trapped In True Love” are the album’s finest passages. Both feature legendary underground drummer Anton Fier, who bounces lithely beneath Swallow’s groundlines. The former tune features a clarion solo from trumpeter Baikida Carroll, while the latter boasts alluring horn textures and a carnivalesque undertone. Trumpeter Lew Soloff emits solar flares in his solo, and guitarist Hiram Bullock adds to the mounting tension, both in his comping and incendiary solo. Between these two encounters, we are treated to the interludes of “Walking Home Alone” and “Waking Up Alone,” each a haunt of cinematic proportions. All of which makes the final blast of fantasy that is “You Can’t Have Anything” an uplifting takeaway.

Having no idea what to expect from this recording, especially given the less-than-appealing title and cover art (a lesson I should already have learned during my jaunt through WATT), imagine my delight when I found this to be a lovingly composed, arranged, and performed album from start to finish. In Weisberg there beats a kindred heart to Carla Bley, whose influence is felt all over this curious little gem from one of jazz’s behind-the-scenes iconoclasts.

Karen Mantler: Business Is Bad (XtraWATT/14)

Business Is Bad

Karen Mantler
Business Is Bad

Karen Mantler vocals, harmonica, piano
Doug Wieselman guitar, bass clarinet
Kato Hideki bass
Basic tracks recorded by Kato Hideki and Peter Karl at Peter Karl Studios, Brooklyn, NY, October 2012
Overdubs recorded by Kato Hideki at Dog Day Studio, Brooklyn, NY, November 2012
Mixed and mastered by Kato Hideki at Dog Day Studio, July-September 2013
Produced by Karen Mantler and Kato Hideki
Release date: June 13, 2014

Karen Mantler is more than the sum of her genetic parts. As the daughter of Michael Mantler and Carla Bley, one might expect her to be any number of things, but ultimately she has come into her own as a singer-songwriter of understated brilliance. It’s difficult to capture the profound simplicity, it not the simple profundity, of her lyrics, much less so the skeletal arrangements in which she couches them in trio with bassist Kato Hideki and Doug Wieselman on guitar and bass clarinet. There is an innocence and charm about these songs, but also a maturity that only comes with the ups and downs of life experience. Mantler focuses decidedly on the latter throughout Business Is Bad, which paints the portrait of an artist starving through deprivations at once social, linguistic, climatic, emotional, legal, artistic, and geographic. Practically dripping with self-awareness, each is a vignette of insight into the working mind of a mind at work.

Mantler Trio
(Photo by Carol Lipnik)

Whether taking on the plight of the homeless in “Catch As Catch Can” or lamenting airport closures caused by “That Damn Volcano” (which, one can only assume, refers to the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull in 2010), Mantler’s slack-jawed lyricism discloses a tongue in universal cheek that wags almost like a child’s, filtering out none of life’s pessimistic moments. With deadpan humor and the meticulous support of her bandmates, she comes across like bold print on the page, a DNA helix gone rogue.

Despite the album’s gloomy pall, there’s much whimsy to be savored, and much of it self-deprecating. The bossa nova skin of “My Magic Pencil (Wrote This Melody)” does little to conceal Mantler’s delightful frustrations over the wanderlust of her most ubiquitous compositional tool. “Speak French” conveys the disadvantages of being monolingual, seesawing English and French like a language instruction tape. On a subterranean level, however, it is a song about the musician’s desire to be heard—all the more ironic, because music is one of the very few languages that transcends such arbitrary barriers. Even when she sings of dead ends, lost causes, and a faithless system in “I Can’t Afford My Lawyer,” she makes as astute observation on the nature of art, which becomes little more than a profit machine built around people’s misfortunes. And in the nervous “My Solo,” in which she expresses a lack of confidence in playing exactly that, she nonetheless produces a songful harmonica solo in the album’s longest, and prettiest, instrumental section.

Between jazzier, diaristic observations (see “Wintertime” and the title track’s funkier blues) and the requisite breakup song (“Surviving You”), Mantler jumps from the quotidian to the philosophical in a single keystroke. If this is your first Mantler album, these extremes may either repel or enchant, but one thing is for sure: her songs are a gust of fresh air in a musical landscape gone dry.

The Swallow Quintet: Into The Woodwork (XtraWATT/13)

Into The Woodwork

The Swallow Quintet
Into The Woodwork

Steve Swallow bass
Chris Cheek tenor saxophone
Steve Cardenas guitar
Carla Bley organ
Jorge Rossy drums
Recorded November 15/16, 2011 and mixed and mastered at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard De Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Steve Swallow
Release date: June 14, 2013

Over a career spanning more than half a century, Steve Swallow has consistently redefined the electric bass as a jazz instrument. More importantly, he has taken any and every opportunity along the way to deepen his craft as a composer. His self-discipline in this regard has made every album seem at once a culmination and a stepping stone into greater futures. Into The Woodwork is no exception.


For this latest incarnation of his quintet, Swallow has chosen a lineup worthy of the subtlety on which these 12 original tunes nourish themselves. The tenor of reedman Chris Cheek, who made a noticeable ECM appearance as part of the Paul Motian Band on Garden of Eden, brings the smoke before the fire in “From Whom It May Concern,” a ballad that tilts its own thematic mirror toward artful reflection. Cheek also plays beautifully in “Unnatural Causes,” from the paint-by-number simplicity of which he unpacks the robustness of an unexpected spectrum. This tune is further notable for the contributions of guitarist and fellow Motian associate Steve Cardenas, whose unforced geometries settle us into the album’s intimacies by way of “Sad Old Candle.” Cardenas, in fact, proves to be the quintet’s greatest converser, whether exchanging remarkable banter with Cheek (“The Butler Did It”) or playing in duet with Swallow (“Suitable For Framing”). His lyricism pairs well, too, with the organ of Carla Bley, whose own omnipresence reveals another defining mastery in tunes like “Never Know,” “Still There,” and “Grisly Business.” The latter’s gentle carnivalesque is ideally suited to her touch at the keys.

Drummer Jorge Rossy is a constant thread to which the band looks for guidance, but especially in the more energetic turns such as “Back In Action” and “Exit Stage Left.” His understated groove actualizes Swallow’s ethos of less as more, and demonstrates that self-assured music need never be arrogant. And then there’s Swallow himself, whose first true solo doesn’t come until the album’s ninth track, “Small Comfort” fans the embers. The edge of his new custom bass sounds already finely aged over this bed of organ and cymbals, exposing a little more of his inner workings as brushed snare and tenor pull back the curtain to clarity.

In contrast to the steadied pacing of Swallow’s ECM outings, many tunes on Into The Woodwork flow into the next without break, thus keeping his atmospheric integrity in constant check. Like the title track itself, the album as a whole finds balance between the grounded and the free, always keeping one arm around the listener’s shoulder. The fact that this music doesn’t overtly challenge is a challenge in and of itself to experience its strengths as givens. Like an old friend, it may not often surprise, but its comforts are exactly where they need to be.