Maneri/Phillips/Maneri: Angles of Repose (ECM 1862)

Angles of Repose

Joe Maneri alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet
Barre Phillips double-bass
Mat Maneri viola
Recorded May 2002, Chapelle Sainte Philomèe, Puget-Ville
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Barre Phillips and Steve Lake

When Joe and Mat Maneri and Barre Phillips materialized in the studio to record Tales of Rohnlief, the result was a magical recipe of microtonal blues and other off-the-beaten-path catharses. The session begged for a sequel, and its name is Angles of Repose. This time around, our synergistic trio throws rules into the air like pigeon feed for the small frame of life that is the cover photograph (incidentally, my favorite ECM sleeve/title combination in the entire catalogue) in the name of integrity.

Number One
Phillips is a grounding force in this opener, adding as much as he takes away and saving the sawdust, so to speak, from his whittling. Joe snakes his prophetic way through vocal and instrumental languages in a veritable feast of biological rumination, tempered by analysis in the immediacy of discovery.

Number Two
The internal machine may be vast, but its weak spot is infinitesimal. Father and son patty-cake the earth into submission. You can skitter and flitter all you want, but you’ll never find the path unless it finds you, whether gelled by time or fragmented by the violence of discovery.

Number Three
Joe cracks the fountain with faith and signs his nameless art with dots and dashes. If he seems winded, it’s only because he is the wind. Ameliorated by the corona of experience, he tempers his weapons with air, that they might never pierce the skin of any mortal fear, along which flounders the death of discovery.

Number Four
Twisting between thumb and fingers, the night rolls the city into a cigarette and smokes it until it sleeps. Every noteless space only makes it stronger. Butterflies and rhinoceri now share the same breath, fraught with the wonder of discovery.

Number Five
A duet for strings of spacious mind channels the wastes of contradiction and melts them into a mold. As the sculpture cools, it becomes a shadow. Its visage weeps invisibility. The hands of passersby inadvertently float through it, so that all they are left with is the fallacy of discovery.

Number Six
The cup has tipped, its contents spreading in a partially eclipsed circle. In this pool where broken mirrors float, we see the multiplicity of our genetic code’s sonority. Harmonics are the edges of fingernails on glass, and further the edge of that glass on sky. Resonant beauty briefly surfaces—a dolphin’s back—before plunging into the brine of discovery.

Number Seven
Blood begets blood begets the onlooker, whose wayfarer soul quivers with the loss of discovery.

Number Eight
The metamorphosis has occurred, not from man to insect but from insect to man, still carrying the language of its forbearers, dribbling into the cupped hands of discovery.

Number Nine
Birdsong becomes liquid mercury in the room-temperature stare of indifference. It is here where music is born, shedding truth for its simulacrum in the hopes that it will be consumed more quickly and forgotten on the way to the core. When our ears spread their wings, they need only lift one talon to leave their carrion. All the screeching and scratching accomplishes one thing: activation. We can feel in the air a vibrant disturbance, which brings its own instructions, blank as October sky. There is a beginning in every end, the anode to galactic circuits in search of a name. And if you lean in close enough, it may just whisper it to you, for it is the breath of discovery.

Number Ten
The whale scratched by Ahab’s spear swims for a song. Its balanced lyric of play guides the sonar true. It wakes you up just to tell you to go to sleep. This is the dream of discovery.

Three lines make not a braid, but a single unbreakable filament plugged directly into the kundalini of any listener willing to close the mind and open the body to the possibility of its activation. Yes, the album has its highlights (Numbers Five and Nine, I’d say, if you asked me), and contains Joe’s most heart-wrenching playing on record, but its lowlights are just as expertly realized, for in this sound-world there is no hierarchy, only the contemplating line that wraps around us as it goes along its way. If pinnacles have restless dreams, these are their soundtracks.

Maneri/Phillips/Maneri: Tales of Rohnlief (ECM 1678)

Tales of Rohnlief

Joe Maneri alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, piano, voice
Barre Phillips double-bass
Mat Maneri electric 6-string and baritone violins
Recorded June 1998 at Hardstudios, Winterthur
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Produced by Steve Lake

Tales of Rohnlief is an exercise in recitation. Joe Maneri’s histrionics call out to grasslands and briny spray. He preaches at the edge of the world, where rocks cut like scissors through wrapping paper: only a push and not a squeeze. In his voice is all the landscape one needs to find purchase for the journey that follows. The voice expresses itself by way of throat and reed, a pitch-bent nightmare turned frosty and sweet. It pales into a spontaneous croak as Barre Phillips and Mat Maneri press their palms to an elaboration of surrender. And with that, these three uncannily attuned improvisers touch the sky with more sky. A break in the clouds reveals a backdrop of revelry.

“A Long Way From Home” feels like anything but, so intimate is its delivery. It whisks us through points of contact as familiar as our subcutaneous selves, and just as sensitive to the errant touch. Mewing cats trade places with stone idols flicking their tongues in the face of condemnation, licking away the possibility of failure as a hand wipes away condensation. Paltry rhyme schemes fail, however, to express the depth of this game of halos. We may, then, search for another method to the genius we now face. I propose that we turn our ears away from what is being told and focus rather on the telling itself. For if we look beyond titles like “When The Ship Went Down” and “The Aftermath,” neither of which help us despite the wonders of their contents, we realize that the inaugural voice has never left us. Its register curls a ghost’s hand and guides us through the gnarled lessons of “Bonewith” until, lo!, it casts its oracle shadow across the “Flaull Clon Sleare” and watches, silent, as we attempt to “Hold The Tiger” (a particularly brilliant pop-up). Watery yet never watered down, the song cackles. “The Field” is another notable mention, if not for its mournful qualities then for the color of its blood. Three dark and winding paths bring us to the tongue-tied destination of “Pilvetslednah.” Now that he’s shown us the yard, Joe welcomes us into his home, forever full of warmth.

There is so much sincerity in this music that it hurts.

Joe Maneri/Mat Maneri: Blessed (ECM 1661)

Joe Maneri
Mat Maneri

Joe Maneri alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, piano
Mat Maneri violin, electric 6-string and baritone violins, electric 5-string viola
Recorded October 1997 at Hardstudios, Winterthur
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Produced by Steve Lake

The stone gate. Vagary of an age lost to the water that swallows its knees. To listen to this record is to step through that gate, and find on the other side not ocean but a new kind of air in which water and vapor bleed like the sun’s light from the moon, the parent in the child. Many father-son teams have thus riddled the history of jazz, but between Joe and Mat Maneri one not only hears the biological bonds at play, but feels their electrical charge, and nowhere more so than on this first duo recording for ECM. Much can be made of the microtonal grammar that Maneri Senior has perfected over decades and which rests so intuitively at his fingertips, but at the end of the day it’s all about physicality and attunement. “If I play a thousand microtones, what’s that worth if the rhythm isn’t happening,” he tells us. “In some ways the rhythm is the most vital part of what we’re doing.” Listening to them emote is akin to listening to Paul Motian on the drums. Such is their fluency. Comparing them and their fashionable counterparts, however, is night and day. Which is to say, night on Earth and day on a different planet. By the same token, there is something so deeply integrated about the playing that we cannot help but look inward to find its pulse.

And yes, we may search for the pulse, but in doing so forget that the search is itself the pulse. Its most potent strain breathes through the lungs of “There Are No Doors,” “Never Said A Mumblin’ Word,” and the title track, all three of which feature Maneri Senior at the piano. If the titles seem to be proclamations, it’s only because the Maneris practice what they preach, tracing the crevices of experience for all the grit we’ve left behind. From this they build microscopic castles and flag them with rapid eye movement. “Sixty-One Joys” is perhaps the most achingly beautiful animal Maneri Junior has ever tamed, an electric baritone violin solo that drinks pathos like honey and exhales sugar in the raw. The insectile blues “From Loosened Soil,” another thing of elemental attraction, bridges us into “Five Fantasies,” which draws on Webern’s bagatelles and ends on a light scream. “Is Nothing Near?” comes closest to an identifiable place, a place where reedmen convene to spit life in the dead of night. Waves of arco fortitude flounder in slow motion, the outtakes of a film starring cigarettes and rainwater. And what of light? For this, we turn to “Body And Soul,” an acoustic violin solo knocking at the door of a homespun dream. It is the rat in the kitchen who eyes the cheese, the teacher in the classroom who nods off mid-lesson, the child in the playground who sees a rainbow and cries, “Race You Home.” The clarinet gets a klezmer test spin in “Gardenias For Gardenis” before shifting into a Lombard Street drive in “Outside The Whole Thing.” At the end of it: a hole in the ground.

Unearthed is what this music is, like a gold nugget or gemstone—only these two mavericks are not interested in priceless rarities but rather take exquisite interest in the sifted dirt. When watered by the gifts of these performances, the dirt burgeons with syllables. They may not be of a language we can all produce on command, but it is one we can always translate.

Joe Maneri Quartet: In Full Cry (ECM 1617)

Joe Maneri Quartet
In Full Cry

Joe Maneri clarinet, alto and tenor saxophones, piano
Mat Maneri six-string electric violin
John Lockwood double-bass
Randy Peterson drums, percussion
Recorded June 1996 at Hardstudios, Winterthur
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Produced by Steve Lake

It’s safe to say that the work of improviser Joe Maneri and his son Mat, whose combination of acoustic reeds and electric strings baffled and astonished listeners in turn on Three Men Walking, is as legendary as it is underappreciated. For that ECM debut, they swabbed the deck with guitarist Joe Morris, whose likeminded spirit never once compromised the duo’s slippery needlework. Here they meld minds with bassist John Lockwood and drummer Randy Peterson. Vivid idiosyncrasies abound. So much so that, more than microtonal, the music is multilingual. Borrowing from blues, free jazz, 12-tone serialism, chamber music, and another indefinable source, the sounds that issue from this quartet span centuries and continents of influence. While perhaps unsettling in isolation, as part of a musical worldview these languages shine with a boggling fluency of translation. The album’s title, then, is something of a mission statement.

Then again, so are the titles of every song therein. For indeed, these instantaneous introspections are bursting with the urges of songcraft. We hear this from track the first. “Coarser And Finer” is, like sandpaper grit, an adhesive and shaping tool, rounding lyrical beginnings to a smile. An agile clarinet finds purchase in “Tenderly” and “Nobody Knows,” the latter one of two spirituals to open their eyes to this wilting landscape. Its lines find barest intimation in that burnished reed and condense into the arresting falter of Peterson’s bangers and mash. Joe warbles like a bird gnawing at is own branch until he falls, begging with feet extended and wings clipped. “Motherless Child” plummets that bird like a seed for future trees. Such distortions breathe in the shadow of what any by-the-book version might romp through. Performers and subject hold each other so tightly that they pass through one another. Rather than make something new of traditions and standards, these sages peel back the many added layers and chart the veins beneath to find something essential to their persistence.

We’re taken also “Outside The Dance Hall,” a space where frenzy and madness stick like the residue of abandoned presentiment, and on through the primordial soup of “A Kind Of Birth,” in which Mat’s violin swims in search of “The Seed And All.” This blistering whisper, if not a whispering blister, carries forth the dreams of elders made new in puppet form, an intimate marionette for whom the bell sings fitfully. “Pulling The Boat In” is the swan song of a warped unicorn, writhing under the title track’s gravid thumb—only the belly of this beast is quiet and self-reflective. “Shaw Was A Good Man, Peewee” is the tapeworm’s song, ribboned with guilty pleasure; “Lift” a puff of air from puerile lips, cackling as if on slowed-down tape. As if this weren’t enough to whet our appetites, this outing ends like the last with a piano solo. Now protracted and exploratory, it wrenches from Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To A Kiss” a spectrum of shades. In so acknowledging his compositional roots, he leaves us dangling in pursuit of a drop that never speaks.

Four brains, eight hands, infinite secrets.

Maneri/Morris/Maneri: Three Men Walking (ECM 1597)

Joe Maneri
Three Men Walking

Joe Maneri clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone, piano
Joe Morris electric guitar
Mat Maneri electric 6 string violin
Recorded October/November 1995, Hardstudios, Winterthur
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Produced by Steve Lake

Joe Maneri (1927-2009) was something of an overnight success story. A musician of eclectic training, charting waters as varied as Dixieland and Second Viennese School dodecaphony, he consolidated years of life experience and sensitive listening into his development of a formidable microtonal system that divides the octave 72 times over. Another portion of that life experience forged a powerful working relationship with son Mat Maneri, who on this first ECM outing joins his father and guitarist Joe Morris for a uniquely delectable set of free improvisation that pushed father Maneri into the spotlight. The result is a sound that doesn’t so much read as embody between the lines, unfolding swooning tones we’ve all but forgotten in the throes of tempered convention.

The strangely feathered and flightless “Calling” inaugurates a chain of fourteen vignettes, each more beguiling than the last. Yet this blissful confusion is exactly what we crave, for once we open ourselves to it we see there is a vast internal logic at work in every twitch of embouchure, bow, and pick. Each is a bridge to the other, so that by the end we are left with an Escherian conundrum—only here the illusion is real. Maneri the elder may be the central voice, but he speaks even when he sits out for a spell. Maneri the younger emotes in drips and drabs, yet with such potency that quality reigns over quantity. The dark combinations he engenders in “What’s New” make of us still fixtures on the wall of an abandoned workshop, scraping rusty tools and unfinished projects as if they were alive and new. Morris, too, bends to the will of the moment, most notably in “Deep Paths.” The session’s longest take, this nine-minute excursion unearths geodes of pointillism toward a fluttering conclusion.

Three Men Walking wouldn’t be complete without a pinch of solos for good measure. The prickly cactus of Morris’s in “If Not Now” further lures us into his art, churning and squirming alongside the worms it has just disturbed. In the melting portrait of “Through A Glass Darkly” we explore the electric violin’s deeper coves, while “Diuturnal” writhes through a morphing alto in a state I can only describe as inevitability. To make the package even fuller, the late Maneri dedicates a razor-thin piano solo to Josef Schmid, one of Alban Berg’s first students and an influential teacher of the sage at the keys.

As if the above weren’t enough, this intimate date is suitably recorded and engineered in an enclosed space. We can therefore thank Steve Lake not only for revealing this pliant jewel through his production, but also for showing us that resonance is where the heart is. These are musicians who tell you what they’ve seen, how they’ve seen it, as they’ve seen it. All too often I submit to the convenience of the word “conversational” to describe the effect of great improvising, yet in the wake of such free jazz integrity as this there is something far greater still at work. Whatever that something is, it slumbers like the heat in our mitochondria. This is music that writes itself, living at the edge of sacrifice.

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