Music

Mat Maneri: Pentagon

Will Layman

Thirsty Ear's 'Blue Series' goads out-violinist Maneri into his own Bitches Brew session.


Mat Maneri

Pentagon

Label: Thirsty Ear
US Release Date: 2005-10-25
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

A decade or so ago, it was fair to say that the musical direction posed by Miles Davis in the 1970s -- an ingenious combination of mostly free jazz with raw doses of funk and electronics -- had gone largely unexplored by the rest of the jazz community. Bitches Brew and Agharta (and most of what lay between them) were hailed as masterpieces, but they represented a jazz cul-de-sac.

Since the mid-'90s, however, with jazz musicians beginning to treat hip-hop and funk rhythms more like a long-lost cousin and less like a fusion sell-out, Bitches Brew has become a concrete touchstone for recording projects by many contemporary masters. The likes of Jon Scofield, Dave Douglas, Roy Hargrove, Waddada Leo Smith, and Matthew Shipp have all sought their inner Bitch. Shipp, in particular, has become a ringleader of this modern funk-fusion renaissance by coaxing such explorations out of superb improvisers through his production work on Thirsty Ear's "Blue Series" of recordings. When this approach works (as on 2004's Junk Magic by keyboardist Craig Taborn), jazz seems again to be music of the future, gobbling up electronica and hip-hop and filtering it through its grand past to make something new.

Pentagon is another gesture in that direction, with Shipp's production and the talents of Taborn, Tom Rainey, and other like-minded downtown wild men in all-out service. The leader is Mat Maneri, a violinist and violist literally raised in the out-music scene as the son of patriarch and alto player Joe Maneri, featured here in a limited role. The younger Maneri's previous discs have mostly been in a more acoustic and "chamber jazz" mode, featuring a microtonal approach to jazz violin that is unique and refreshing. As a string instrument with no fret, the violin is uniquely suited to playing the notes between the western half-steps, and Maneri is a master of using these blue areas to achieve startling and beautiful effects.

Placing Maneri's violin in a funk-fusion Bitches Brew context is not an obvious choice. Whether for Miles and John McLaughlin or Douglas and Marc Ribot, this is not typically a context that rewards subtlety. It's easy to imagine Maneri's chamber approach to violin-jazz getting lost in the melee. Maneri seeks to solve this problem in two ways: First, he does not entirely abandon a quieter approach on Pentagon. Several tracks feature Maneri's violin and viola overdubbed into an ensemble, which is then electronically altered or set against effects or percussion. The opener, "Ava", is a brooding wash of reverberation. The playing here is fairly "straight" by Maneri's microtonal standards, with the subtle processing making the string ensemble sound vaguely like a synthesized organ. "Third Hand -- The Fallen" features the string ensemble in microtonal glory like it's being pitch-shifted by a keyboard's tone wheel to go out of tune. The unique feature of this track, however, is the electronic percussion and quick-handed tabla playing of T.K. Ramakrishnan that bubbles underneath as a kind of "solo."

Second, Maneri seeks to preserve his violin in a loud context by adding electronic effects to his playing. Most of the tracks, indeed, hum with funky or electronica-based out-fusion. "W.W.P." is a messy Bitches Brew-stew featuring lots of Ben Gerstein's compelling trombone smears and the debut of Maneri's electrically processed violin, an instrument that can't help but remind of McLaughlin's BB electric guitar. This track is particularly Milesian in the way the trombone rises occasionally with a lyrical line amidst the electric/percussive jumble. "Irenam" covers Bitches Brew territory at a slow/non-tempo, with Rainey masterfully playing in a DeJohnnette-like free groove. The most fully realized track in this vein, however, is "Wound". Here, Taborn is featured mainly on acoustic piano, yet the menacing free-groove is no less compelling. This track crawls at a mostly free tempo, but the dialogue between the various soloists is gripping. The stabs of piano are in percussive conversation with Rainey's drums, and Gerstein and Maneri seem to be telling midnight tales of murder in a dimly lit room.

"Howl in My Head/Motherless Child" and "Pentagon" succeed in a different ways. With processed drumming and an M-Base type bass line, we enter a decidedly off-kilter spaceway with a hip-hop heart. Sonja Maneri craggily sings "Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child" over a polyrhythmic funk groove. "Pentagon" features a Jon Hendricks sound-alike scat vocal (by dad Joe?) over tablas and synth. Both tracks -- nods to Maneri's parents, I suppose -- have a terse wonder.

There are, perhaps, too many tracks here, however, that wander the Bitches Brew by-way for too long and with too little focus. Though I love the Rhodes playing by Taborn on "Witches Woo", and though the trombone/string interaction on "An Angel Passes By" is again compelling, none of these wide-open tracks ever deigns to offer the listener a theme, a melody, a composed interlude, or a significantly contrasting section. If you go for this sort of improv out-funk kind of thing, each track is really cool, but the whole collection is somewhat tiresome. "War Room" is more aggressive and sharp than "Angel" (as you would imagine) and in a different tonal area than "Witches", but the playing and approach is too similar on all three (and on "W.W.P." and "Irenam"). The whole disc is an exhausting listen, even if careful attention to any one track is nicely repaid.

It's worth, however, singling out the last track. "America" is a strange and wonderful conclusion, again featuring Maneri's overdubbed string ensemble in quavering, microtonal glory. After an album with song titles like "Pentagon", "War Room", "The Fallen", and "Wound", we reach a recording of the patriotic song so many of us have sung in third grade assemblies over the years. "America! America! God shed his grace on thee." The dense jungle of sonic street-fighting that is so much of this album is healed by an otherworldly version of one of our nation's anthems, played to disorient us and also ground us. The melody comes through vaguely at first and then with greater clarity, as if Maneri were wishing our country a passage of similar definition and rediscovery. We start with so many war themes and wind up, "from sea to shining sea," thinking again about home.

For me, it makes it seem that repeating the whole record will be a daunting task, but maybe something I need to do.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image