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.