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)

Carla

Steve Swallow
Carla

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”)
and
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.