You don’t have to be a jazz fan to appreciate that picture. But it helps.
Most people have never heard of Joe Maneri, so not too many folks are mourning the August 24 passing of this great musician. In addition to being a beloved teacher and father of jazz violinist Mat Maneri, he is rightly considered a pioneering figure in music. His inclusion of Turkish and Klezmer music into a more free jazz (think Ornette Coleman playing with one of Sun Ra’s bands covering traditional European music at a Greek orthodox wedding and you begin to get the picture) helped liberate and expand the possibilities of jazz improvisation. Like Coleman and Sun Ra, Maneri was an astute and original composer: his work is not immediately accessible, but patient ears quickly identify a very consistent logic and style.
Anyone who has seen the excellent American Splendor (a film celebrating the life of curmudgeonly comic book artist Harvey Pekar) has heard Maneri: his impossibly cool ”Paniots Nine” accompanies the opening credits. Pekar allegedly insisted that Maneri’s music be used, and this stands to reason as Pekar (himself a jazz critic) championed a largely obscure Maneri back in the ’90s. Indeed, it was John Zorn who helped release Paniots Nine (the title of the first track is also the title of the album), which makes all the sense in the world considering Zorn effectively took up Maneri’s baton in the ’80s and began cleverly integrating traditional Jewish music into his own compositions. It’s fair to say that Maneri, though lamentably overlooked for entirely too long, was the first major composer to actively bring those disparate elements and influences into free (but still swinging) jazz.
Anyone interested in some adventurous, unexpected, yet oddly familiar jazz would be happy to hear this album. The fact that this baby was languishing in the Atlantic Records’ vaults is both unbelievable and entirely typical. Of course this revelatory music would fall on the deaf ears of the dumb executives. Same as it ever was. Suffice it to say, jazz enthusiasts are forever indebted to Harvey Pekar for helping this see the light of day.
If asked who kept time for John Coltrane, most folks would go with Elvin Jones, as Jones was part of the “Classic Quartet” for the better part of the ’60s. But once Coltrane began moving further and further out, the great McCoy Tyner was replaced by Alice McLeod (later Alice Coltrane) and Jones was replaced by Rashied Ali (who passed on August 12). Although he was a serious and prolific musician in his own rite, he is most famously associated with Coltrane, particularly his work on what turned out to be Trane’s last sessions, (the ones that subsequently resulted in Interstellar Space and Expression). Much has been written about the former, not so much about the latter. Interstellar Space is in many ways all things to all people: it is simply a series of duets between Coltrane and Ali, but there is nothing simple about it. It is forbidding, volcanic, disorienting, gorgeous and exhausting. Simpletons would say it can scarcely be considered music; true believers insist it’s revelatory. For me it’s certainly sacred stuff, but an experience sufficiently intense that I only crave it on special occasions. Regardless, it was, and remains, remarkable—in concept but especially in execution—that Ali was willing (and able) to work without a net and go mano a mano with Coltrane, then at his most excoriating. It is a unique document for this fact alone; that it manages to succeed helps underscore the devotion fans have attached to it over the years.
And while I can only handle Interstellar Space in irregular doses, I continue to be mesmerized by Expression. This one features a full band, including Alice Coltrane (piano), the great Jimmy Garrison (part of the Classic Quartet) on bass, and Ali on drums. For the album’s centerpiece, the sixteen-plus minute opus “To Be”, Coltrane makes an especially inspired choice by bringing in Pharoah Sanders: the result is a duo of sorts (Coltrane for the first and only time playing flute for an entire song on record and Sanders accompanying him on piccolo). Garrison and Alice Coltrane provide an anchor for the woodwinds, which circle and flutter like moths above a streetlight. But in many ways, Rashied Ali is the focal point of the proceedings; he is never busy but always present, expertly managing to remain quietly intense in the background. This is percussion as painting: each brush stroke adding up to something bigger and more meaningful. It is a near perfect symmetry of cerebral instinct and graceful dexterity, and it is the type of sensitive yet forceful accompaniment that made Ali a legend. He is already missed.