Microtones and Bebop

Joe Maneri Turns 75; Nick Brignola 1936–2002

One of the infrequent pleasures of ethnic weddings and bar or bat mitzvahs in the era before DJs began contributing to musical unemployment (may God forgive me) was the chance encounter with jazz players hiding out in those bands. I can recall coming across sidemen formerly associated with Fats Navarro, Woody Herman, Thad and Mel, and Cecil Taylor. Musicians call those gigs socials, and play them for the same reason critics write liner notes or press releases: It's a living. As a rule, they bring their jazz expertise to the gig and take little if anything away. Joe Maneri suspended the rule. The saxophonist and clarinetist, who celebrated his 75th birthday with a full house at Tonic on February 9, took to heart the pitch variations in Greek, Israeli, Middle Eastern, and other party musics he mastered in the line of duty, noting their affinity with scalar particularities in the music of West Africa and India as well as jazz, and made his way into the alternate universe of microtonality.

Having flirted with instrumental vaudeville (two instruments at the same time), Dixieland, swing, and Tristano-style modernism, Maneri studied dodecaphony with Josef Schmid, a student of Alban Berg; supported himself with gigs at ethnic clubs, where he learned new time signatures as well as sliding scales; and landed, in 1970, a professorship at the New England Conservatory, where he evolved a concept of microtonality that identifies five distinct pitches between two notes of the tempered scale, or 72 pitches per octave. As all this happened away from the international stages of jazz, his sudden arrival as an avant-garde star and ECM recording artist in the mid '90s, when he was in his late sixties, added up to one of the oddest overnight success stories since Grandma Moses. He was acclaimed a prophet, and his first—and, in my judgment, best—ECM album, Three Men Walking, a 1995 performance with violinist Mat Maneri (his son) and guitarist Joe Morris, did not disappoint. It is original and deeply compelling. While the Maneris tend to blend, Morris counterposes a different yet complementary key, suggesting harmolodic spaciality. He is at once apart and in sync.

The comparison with Ornette Coleman doesn't end there. If Coleman plays off-pitch from the tempered scale, he is always in tune with himself, producing a deliciously raw and ragged sound; his use of microtones is a natural, unforced consequence of his effulgent style, reflected in his whoops and glissandi. Maneri begins with conventional tuning, but probes for the notes between notes. I don't know if a listener can detect them all, or even what a 72-note scale sounds like. But the effect is of a music in which virtually every note is virtual, a moaning glissando that swims one way and then another. On Three Men Walking, Maneri is a communicative player: His sounds on tenor, alto, and especially clarinet are impressively his own, his phrases logical and meaningful. Nowhere is this more evident than on "What's New?" which begins disarmingly with the standard's first two notes and continues to limn the melody while veering deeper into it, so that instead of theme-and-variations you experience something akin to an enchanted dissection.

Joe Maneri: probing for the notes between the notes
photo courtesy of Francesca Patella/ECM Records
Joe Maneri: probing for the notes between the notes

Maneri's achievement was underscored by the 1998 release of Panoits Nine (Avan), which consists of a demo made for Atlantic Records at precisely the wrong time, 1963, when Coleman had disappeared from the label, selling far fewer albums than his blizzard of press notices or the splendor of his music promised; and a live klezmer performance from 1981. The album is great fun, demonstrating his ease with tricky time signatures and embrace of authenticity. Yet little attempt is made at bringing ethnic styles to a jazz template, and some of that is derivative. The title piece, in 9/8, is unmistakably Brubeckian; the whimsical "Why Don't You Go Far Away" is a pitch-challenged combination of Monk and the Pink Panther. I suspect that other numbers are the kind of thing one might have picked up on albums bought in the Middle East during the same period. On Three Men Walking, however, such influences are so thoroughly assimilated into what appears to be an instinctive microtonality that they might not come to mind at all if one wasn't primed to seek them out.

Subsequent albums are less enticing, though they all have moments. In Full Cry features the quartet heard at Tonic—the Maneris, bassist John Lockwood, drummer Randy Peterson—and shows off the saxophonist's control of harmonics, producing brazen chords and notes that swell in the middle line on a string instrument. He suggests Artie Shaw's silvery technique and Pee Wee Russell's microtones (who knew?) on "Shaw Was a Good Mann, Pee Wee." But what's with "Tenderly," a cloying tune that other avant-gardists have also resuscitated? Two spirituals are less than emphatic and an original called "Outside the Dance Hall" underscores the absence of music from inside, where the pulse is bound to be more assertive. The search for microtones here and on Blessed (mostly duets with Mat) is no substitute for, say, Coleman's melodic and rhythmic exhilaration, which may seem apples-and-oranges except that a few numbers at Tonic and passages on the superior Tales of Rohnlief ("Bonewith," "Hold the Tiger") show that Maneri can light a fire beneath his weeping glissandi when he chooses to.

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