The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra: s/t (JCOA 1)

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Jazz Composer’s Orchestra

Don Cherry cornet
Gato Barbieri tenor saxophone
Larry Coryell guitar
Roswell Rudd trombone
Pharoah Sanders tenor saxophone
Cecil Taylor piano
The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra
Michael Mantler
conductor
Recorded on 3M 8-track tape recorders in RCA Victor’s Studio B, New York City
Recording engineer: Paul Goodman
Produced by Michael Mantler

It has been 52 years since the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra dropped its weighty stone into the pond of music history. And yet, its ripples are still rocking the boats of listeners today. Count me among them. Despite having first gotten to know Michael Mantler through his intersections with ECM Records (a personal favorite being The School of Understanding), and having been given a taste of this watershed double LP on Review, I was humbled by the intensity herein. The vital link to that latter compilation is “Preview” (recorded May 8, 1968), which compresses the album’s full magnitude into 3-1/2 minutes via a gut-wrenching solo from Pharoah Sanders on tenor. Over a punctuated ensemble, he gives us much to ponder on the altar of our listening, as if it were the living amalgamation of many deaths before it (if not the dying amalgamation of many lives before it). Not out of any grand level of abstraction or concept but only through a sheer embodiment of execution does it succeed to carry a charge.

While soloists tend to dominate the foreground at any given moment throughout this project, the orchestra itself isn’t something to bat a flaccid eyelash at, either. Sheltering such greats as Steve Lacy, Randy Brecker, Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Andrew Cyrille, Ron Carter, and Eddie Gomez, it blisters to the touch, and perhaps nowhere no more so than on “Communications #8” (recorded January 24, 1968). Hitting us where it counts with a solar flare, it lights the continents of Don Cherry’s cornet and Gato Barbieri’s tenor with killer instinct. Theirs is a power to be reckoned with. Every breath matters. “Communications #9” (recorded May 8, 1968) is an ember by contrast. But Larry Coryell ensures that the air itself is flammable, and that his guitar is the only logical path toward its combustion. Beneath it all, Bley’s piano chops away at the spine to make way for nerve impulses while droning reeds and five bassists level the earth. Coryell twists his strings until they adhere to inner turmoil. “Communications #10” (recorded May 8, 1968) features a rare introduction from Steve Swallow on upright bass, abstract yet flexible, and for that reason alone lends it archival vitality. So begins a morose and strangely unbreakable chain of inward glances. Trombonist Roswell Rudd is the extroverted soloist moving through viscous oceans before reaching a deserted island where, in dialogue with drummer Beaver Harris, he unravels the stuff of fantasy as if it were his only viable companion. The orchestra swoops in until there’s nothing left but smoke to show for their existence.

All of this leads to the massive diptych “Communications #11.” Spanning nearly 34 minutes, it’s another unrelenting communique. Pianist Cecil Taylor solos the you-know-what out of it like someone on fire in frantic in search for water. His interactions with Cyrille’s percussive details is worth the dive in and of itself. If Part 1 is the freefall, then Part 2 illustrates the landing in gruesome detail. Cyrille and Taylor continue their banter, turning starlight knives, each intent on drawing blood. The energy of their flight is sustained so steadfastly as to bring a tear to the eye, only to dry it with a punch in the cheek. This is where insanity goes for respite. Let it keep you sane.

Michael Mantler: Many Have No Speech (WATT/19)

Many Have No Speech

Michael Mantler
Many Have No Speech

Jack Bruce voice
Marianne Faithfull voice
Robert Wyatt voice
Michael Mantler trumpet
Rick Fenn guitar
The Danish Concert Radio Orchestra
Peder Kargerup
conductor
Orchestra recorded and mixed May 1987 at the Danish Radio, Copenhagen
Engineers: Ole Hviid and Jorn Jacobsen
Producer: Andy Sundstrom
All other material recorded May through December 1987 at West 3 Recording Studios, London (engineer: John McGowan), Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York (engineer: Michael Mantler), and Newbury Sound, Boston (engineer: Paul Arnold)
Album mixed January 1988 by Michael Mantler at Grog Kill Studio
Mastering by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York
Album produced by Michael Mantler
Release date: May 30, 1988

After the leaking tire of Live, how redemptive to hear Jack Bruce’s voice hit the ground with the strength of a 4×4 in convoy formation with Marianne Faithfull and Robert Wyatt. Together, they navigate prose and poetry of Samuel Beckett, Ernst Meister, and Philippe Soupault for a symphony of grit and genuine emotion.

The commanding air that flows through Mantler’s trumpet welcomes us as if by the outstretched hands of a keeper of knowledge and opens a semantic portal to the netherworld of communication. The songs that follow are short (some no longer than 20 seconds), thus allowing us to focus on every morpheme with rapt attention. So full are these glimpses of human fracture that the longest tracks—“Something There” (a setting of Beckett sung by Bruce clocking in at three and a half minutes) and the spoken gem “Comrade” (a setting of Soupalt, in Pat Nolan’s English translation, at nearly four and a half)—feel epic by comparison. Thus, words are shown to be self-driven entities as the guitar of Rick Fenn clenches its psychological teeth around the line “songs are songs and the days days.” Faithfull is, for lack of better descriptors, creepy and beguiling. Her reading of Beckett’s “Imagine” is gut-wrenching, Fenn’s guitar serving as an emotional mesh through which hardships are pushed in the hopes of leaving behind flecks of gold. The tenacity of “En Cadence” is another noteworthy dive inward.

Wyatt only gets three appearances, but his voice is a welcome color change. His take on Soupault’s “Tant De Temps” is evocative to the max, the vocal equivalent of paint being moved across a surface as strings, trumpet, and percussion hold their gesso underneath. “L’Abbatoir” burrows deeper under the skin. Its magical combinations presage the insistence of Faithfull’s later tracks. “Prisonniers” is an echo from beyond the grave of atrocity.

Given the aphoristic structure it emplos, Many Have No Speech almost feels like a language instruction tape set to music. Each vignette is filled with enough wisdom, at once practical and profound, to retread many times over. This is not background music. It’s foreground music.

Michael Mantler: Live (WATT/18)

Live

Michael Mantler
Live

Jack Bruce vocals
Michael Mantler trumpet
Rick Fenn guitar
Don Preston synthesizers
John Greaves
bass, piano
Nick Mason drums
Recorded February 8, 1987 during the 1st International Art Rock Festival at the Kongresshalle, Frankfurt, Germany
Festival produced by Off-Tat Frankfurt with the Co-Operation of the Hessischer Rundfunk (Concept and Production: Klaus Schäffer, Peter Kemper, Ulrich Olshausen, Dieter Buroch)
Location recording by Hessischer Rundfunk
Engineer: Wolfgang Packeiser
Concert sound: Sven Persson
Mixed by Michael Mantler with assistance from Doug Epstein at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Mastered by Greg Calbi at Sterling Sound, New York
Produced by Michael Mantler
Release date: September 1, 1987

Recorded at the 1st International Art Rock Festival in Frankfurt, Live might just be Michael Mantler’s most overt nod to Henry Cow yet. It’s also, to my ears, the trumpeter/composer’s least cohesive album. From the opening track, which marries his fiery “Preview” with “No Answer,” we might be forgiven for thinking we’re in for an incendiary ride when vocalist Jack Bruce goes all in for his delivery of the Samuel Beckett lyric. Whereas his studio recordings often sound multiply refined, despite their sometimes-grim subject matter and atmospheres, in a live setting we get more frayed edges. This is both the album’s blessing and its curse, as the selections from Mantler’s take on Edward Gorey, The Hapless Child, leave one wishing for their original performer, Robert Wyatt. Bruce’s “The Remembered Visit” is flaccid by comparison, though he does revive some of the idiosyncratic aplomb he does best in “The Doubtful Guest” at the concert’s close.

Mantler himself, normally a pungent soloist, meanders on “For Instance” and “When I Run,” setting up journeys without apparent destinations. Having said that, I lend an ear with wonder to the three “Slow Orchestra Pieces,” without which the album might fall apart. Their archival feel, coupled with center-stage moves from Rick Fenn on guitar and Don Preston on synthesizer, make them just worth the price of admission. So listen at least for them, but save your time for the vocal pieces in original form to get their full effect.

Michael Mantler with Don Preston: Alien (WATT/15)

Alien

Michael Mantler
with Don Preston
Alien

Michael Mantler trumpet
Don Preston synthesizers / Yamaha DX7 (with Mimetics Performance Software), Alpha Syntauri (with Mimetics Meta 5.0 Software), Korg Poly-61, Poly-800, DW-6000, Linn Drum
Recorded and mixed March through July 1985 by Michael Mantler at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Third Ear: Carla Bley
Produced by Michael Mantler
Release date: November 1, 1985

For this album—one as atmospherically rich as its cover’s typography is attention-grabbing—trumpeter Michael Mantler joins cosmic forces with ex-Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston, whose array of synthesizers delineates a virtual reality for us to wander around in. This combination yields a window for every door, cutting out a framed glimpse of what lies beyond before opening into it. Conceived in four phases, each with its own character, it creates a world of elliptical logic and physical properties. Part 1 is a brooding tectonic shift of past and future plates, such that the present is left questioning its own existence. From this reverie emerges an equally visual language of rhythm and tension, Preston’s era-defining drum machine peeking out from the woodwork at the most tasteful intervals. Part 2 is held together by systematic codes. Mantler’s trumpet is the organic outlier in an inorganic world, a traveler without a map whose only assurance is the life that keeps his body from atomizing. One might take Part 3 to be a commentary on postmodern angst over media representation, yet just as easily see Part 4 as a reflection of our own complicity in its proliferation.

Any Mantler fan should want to experience this. Others should want to take the chance. Either way, you are sure to find yourself face to face with profound questions. In absence of explicit answers to the overarching title, we must accept its open-ended invitation to bring personal charge to the fore. If anything is alien, it is our own propensity to turn falsehood into prophecy.

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
where
out there
out where
outside
what
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
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
something
not life
necessarily

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.

Michael Mantler: More Movies (WATT/10)

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Michael Mantler
More Movies

Michael Mantler trumpet
Philip Catherine guitar
Gary Windo tenor saxophone
Carla Bley piano, organ
Steve Swallow bass
D. Sharpe drums
Recorded and mixed August 1979 through March 1980 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineers: Michael Mantler and Tom Mark
Produced by Carla Bley

This companion to 1978’s Movies isn’t so much a sequel as a direct continuation of Michael Mantler’s wonderful predecessor after a two-year intermission. In addition to screening further sonic films, it includes three short subjects under overt titles. “Movie Nine” is the first of the former, one of seven in scattered order on the program, and introduces a palette similar to the first album. Mantler is back on trumpet, while Carla Bley rejoins on piano (and organ), and Steve Swallow on bass. Drummer Tony Williams is replaced here by D. Sharpe, and guitarist Larry Coryell by his onetime acoustic touring partner Philip Catherine. Yet what separates an already expansive soundtrack without images is the addition of Gary Windo on tenor saxophone. His soulful reed work is a strong counterpart to the lively precision of the rhythm section and to Catherine’s own committed readings. Throughout numbers Ten through Fifteen, we encounter a range of directorial styles, from the smoldering noir of “Movie Eleven” and rich exposition of “Movie Fourteen” to the spacious ride of “Movie Twelve.”

“The Sinking Spell” is the first of the explicitly themed tracks, and the mere inclusion of these implicatory words does much to nuance our interpretation of the scenes at hand. Swallow and Sharpe crush it right out of the gate, launching a sophisticated groove made all the tenser by Bley’s pianism. “Will We Meet Tonight?” is another full wave that casts Windo in a bluesy leading role. “The Doubtful Guest” brings magical realism to the fore and opens the frame for Catherine’s blistering method acting. Common to all of these is an intensity of build-up and narrative consummation.

Despite the success of Movies, this follow-up was apparently a flop at the proverbial box office. All I can say is that it’s one of my favorites from Mantler and worthy of repeat viewings.

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Michael Mantler: Movies (WATT/7)

Movies

Michael Mantler
Movies

Michael Mantler trumpet
Larry Coryell guitar
Carla Bley piano, synthesizer, tenor saxophone
Steve Swallow bass
Tony Williams drums
Recorded March and mixed November 1977 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Michael Mantler
Mastered by HR
Produced by Carla Bley

After enjoying a lavish dinner with Carla Bley and her band, what could be better than watching a movie? While we may not have visuals to accompany what we hear in this case, what is a movie if not a sonic entity? Even so-called silent films are nothing without their sounds—described, implied, and visualized. Michael Mantler likewise makes action audible, laying out eight narrative sketches for a silvery quintet consisting of himself on trumpet, Bley on piano (as well as synth and tenor saxophone), Larry Coryell on guitar, Steve Swallow on electric bass, and Tony Williams on drums.

“Movie One” establishes an orchestral sound from this small group of musicians, planting feet firmly in a crisp, mineral-rich soil. Coryell makes a welcome cameo in the WATT roster, fleeting though it may be, in that he brings to the fore a depth of philosophy that transcends its own historical moment (be sure to check out his character role in “Movie Seven” as well). Williams and Swallow are a fluid rhythm section, while Bley rocks the keyboards in harmony with Mantler, whose trumpet sharpens a leading blade that cuts through “Movie Three” (which would seem to move across the same whetstone as Steve Kuhn’s Trance) and “Movie Six.”

Of especial note are “Movie Four,” for Coryell’s ricochet effect and Bley’s mechanical undercurrent, and “Movie Five,” for Swallow’s swing and Mantler’s textural skill. But the Palme d’Or goes to “Movie Two.” ECM listeners may know it from the Mantler playlist that is 2006’s Review. Blistering yet always within view of the camera, its actors punch out a tenuous beginning until it grooves. As Swallow and Williams lead the way with Mantler bringing up the rear, Coryell burns a hole in the celluloid until disbelief can no longer be suspended. Like “Movie Eight” that ends it all, it glows with mortal finality. Then again, what finality is not mortal?

Michael Mantler: Silence (WATT/5)

Silence

Michael Mantler
Silence

Robert Wyatt voice, percussion
Carla Bley piano, voice, organ
Kevin Coyne voice
Chris Spedding guitar
Ron McClure bass
Clare Maher cello
Recorded during January 1976 at Grog Kill Studio, Willow, New York
Engineer: Michael Mantler
Robert Wyatt and Chris Spedding recorded during February with the Manor Mobile at Delfina’s farm, Little Bedwin, Wiltshire, England
Engineer: Alan Perkins
Kevin Coyne recorded during April with the Virgin Mobile at the Gong Farm, Whitney, Oxfordshire, England
Engineer: Steve Cox
Additional strings recorded during June and mixed during November at Grog Kill Studio
Engineer: Michael Mantler
Produced by Carla Bley

“One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”
–Harold Pinter

Upon waking from the fever dream of Michael Mantler’s The Hapless Child, we might be forgiven for expecting reality to welcome us back with comforting arms. Instead, Silence throws us into the bore of everyday life, so that by the end we’re left wondering why anything that mattered ever mattered at all. In this musical, though far from incidental, setting of the eponymous play by the ever-contrarian Harold Pinter, we find ourselves in the company of Rumsey (Kevin Coyne), Ellen (Carla Bley), and Bates (Robert Wyatt). Rumsey is brash and self-confident, happy to have a girl on one arm—“She dresses for my eyes,” he sings—and a blissful disregard for mortality on the other. The environment Mantler composes around him creeps in with inevitable foreboding. The dialogue, such as it is, is more internal than external, chillingly honest yet indifferently expository. Ellen, for her part, is possessed of a breezy self-awareness: “There are two. One who is with me sometimes, and another. He listens to me. I tell him what I know.” In so saying, she reveals a hidden motive to the relationship, a conduit between souls that shrivels in fear when Bates enters the scene and brings with them a bevy of piano, bass, and percussion. All of which sets off a chain reaction of circular reasoning that muddies more than clarifies the human condition.

The music is a mixture of rock, funk, downtown cool, and European art song. Without it, there might be nothing to hold on to. Guitarist Chris Spedding is remarkable, gaining deepest traction in “She Was Looking Down,” and Bley lays on a thick layer of expressiveness, both as pianist and as vocalist (note, especially, “After My Work Each Day”). But while this is as luscious and engaging as any Bley/Mantler collaboration from the 70s could be, the play itself is lackluster to say the least. Its theme of lost souls is as fatigued as the characters it threads like beads on a necklace far too big for its own neck. As the drama develops, memory overlaps and all sense of time stops, unravels, and expands. But any pretentions Pinter might have of making an existential statement fall flat for me, especially when compared to the stripped-down brilliances of Samuel Beckett and Edward Gorey that preceded it. That said, in relatively short bursts—as in “When I Run” and “A Long Way”—the dialogue is somewhat tangible. The best example is “Sometimes I See People,” which creates a charmingly metaphysical atmosphere for being so much about music, sensory experience, and sense of belonging. But really it’s Mantler’s stage, rather than the people ambulating across it, that keeps me from walking out.

Both realms, the play and this soundtrack, are cyclical constructions. But if the words are just a spiral, the music is a helix. It binds with our DNA and finds a place in our evolution as listeners.

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Michael Mantler: The Hapless Child (WATT/4)

The Hapless Child

Michael Mantler
The Hapless Child

Robert Wyatt vocals
Carla Bley piano, clavinet, string synthesizer
Steve Swallow bass guitar
Jack DeJohnette drums, percussion
Terje Rypdal guitar
Alfreda Benge speaker
Albert Caulder, Nick Mason additional speakers
Recorded July 1975 through January 1976 at Grog Kill Studio in Willow, New York with the Manor Mobile at Robert Wyatt’s house and Delfina’s farm in England, and at Britannia Row in London
Engineers: Michael Mantler, Dennis Weinreich, Alan Perkins, and Nick Mason
Mixed January 1976 at Britannia Row by Nick Mason
“The Hapless Child” mixed November 1975 at Scorpio Sound by Dennis Weinreich
Produced by Carla Bley
Release date: June 1, 1978

Our sojourn through the shadowy periphery of WATT-induced slumber presses onward in The Hapless Child. Michael Mantler’s lovingly crafted ode to Edward Gorey (1925-2000) deepens the dream in which we find ourselves, making it seem more real by every sung (and spoken) word. Those who adore Mantler’s soundscapes might already be familiar with Gorey’s words and illustrations. Macabre though his themes often are, there’s also a childlike wonder to his gallery of apparitions, misfortunes, and uncertainties that lends itself beautifully to Mantler’s uniquely sonic stagecraft.

Gorey himself once said, “It’s well we cannot hear the screams we make in other people’s dreams.” And perhaps we are given here a glimpse into that very possibility, as if every scream were re-clothed as a poem that everyone can relate to. Aiding in this psychosomatic translation process is a band that is itself the stuff of fantasy: Carla Bley on piano and keyboards, Steve Swallow on bass guitar, Jack DeJohnette on drums and percussion, and Terje Rypdal on guitar. Standing at the top of this pyramid is vocalist Robert Wyatt, who drinks in all the sunlight and spews out morbid parables for the lost below.

The most convincing turns of this subarachnoid maze are found in three dense scenes. “The Sinking Spell” opens with what sounds like the tail end of an in-studio conversation, reminding us from the start that what we are about to experience has been fashioned as an object of fascination for our voyeuristic ears. Wyatt transitions into the deceptive simplicity of rhyming couplets, telling the story of something “morose, inflexible, aloof” appearing and disappearing. Ever closer but ultimately ephemeral, this unidentified presence looms with a feeling of unsettlement as intense as Wyatt’s matter-of-fact delivery. “The Insect God” conveys the frantic story of a child’s disappearance and the dismay of a family who will never know the ghastly sacrifice for which she has been taken. It is also one of the most disconcerting masterstrokes of prog rock these ears have ever encountered. Then the title song, in which a girl falls into destitution following the death of her parents, only to be fatally run over by her war-wounded father (alive after all), who no longer recognizes a daughter battered beyond recognition by fate.

Rypdal and DeJohnette provide glimpses of gold in these otherwise silver-toned dramas. Bley’s piano and string synthesizer up the quotient of creepiness, while Swallow’s bass is the perpetual mobile of time that stops for no one. Other shards in this bag of broken memories include “The Object-Lesson” (a recitative laid on an extraordinary altar of guitar, bass, and drums), “The Doubtful Guest” (for which Wyatt’s brogue is uncannily suited), and “The Remembered Visit” (about a promise destined never to be fulfilled). Each of these is a path we might very have wandered ourselves, but against which Mantler has constructed a strangely alluring warning sign for us to read in full before heading forth to brighter pastures under opened eyes.

Though The School of Understanding will always be my favorite Mantler piece, The Hapless Child might just as appropriately wear the crown of his highest achievement.

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