Microtones and Bebop


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.

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.

A highlight of the Tonic set was a brief, laid-back violin passage by Mat Maneri, who chain-smoked throughout the hour while affecting a smug insouciance, yet achieved a rhythmic suppleness and communicative ease of his own. In recordings with Matt Shipp and in his version of “Body and Soul,” which is perhaps the expressive acme of Blessed, he has suggested growing maturity. The promise is realized on his recently released ECM debut, Trinity, a solo recital of unexpected depth and variety. His adaptation of “Sun Ship,” a stark and rather insubstantial Coltrane fragment, begins with barely a hint of the source material, then proceeds to locate it in the course of deliberate microtonal stages, building to a vigorous peak as if the Coltrane figure had to be earned. He seems to have assimilated his father’s assimilations to the point where he may be able to achieve his own rapprochement between microtonality and jazz per se.

Goodbye Nick The great baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola died Friday, February 8, at 65, after battling cancer for a year. His label, Reservoir, had just released his last album, Tour de Force, a terrific session recorded in December 2000, brimming with his usual bebop energy (“Donna Lee”) and rhythmic wit (“Backwoods Song”), belying any incipient illness. I first heard Nick with Ted Curson’s quintet at a Left Bank jazz club in Paris called Le Chat qui Peche in 1967; it was the summer of my freshman year and I had never heard of him, though I knew Ted’s name from his appearances on recent albums by Archie Shepp and Booker Ervin. We all became friends, and when Ted launched his quartet (Nick, bassist Reggie Johnson, and drummer Dick Berk), I hired them to play my college. They arrived the week John Coltrane’s posthumous Expressions came out, and Nick was eager to hear Coltrane’s sole recording on flute. He was disappointed. Nick had just begun playing the instrument, and was far more proficient.

Nick was almost ridiculously proficient. He had played in a youth orchestra at Newport and graduated to Woody Herman’s 1963 band, before beginning his long association with Ted, which flowered during a residency at the Tin Palace in 1974. In those days, he often played clinics and had a gimmick in which he would give a student cards, each one marked with a chord. He would begin improvising at a clip and the student could flash the chords at him in any order at any time; he never missed a change. A totally unpretentious, working-class kind of guy, he was born in Troy, New York, and remained in the area all his life, spinning jazz platters on local radio and leaving when he had work. When I met him, he was 29, and hungry for recognition, so he self-produced an LP, This Is It! (Priam), playing baritone, saxello, flute, alto, and bass, overdubbing himself. Only his alto was uninspired, but he soon got past the need to show off and focused on the baritone.

By the late 1970s he was recording for Beehive, inviting Pepper Adams and Cecil Payne, as well as Curson, to join in, but he really came into his own with 10 smashing CDs for Reservoir, beginning in 1989, always backed by the best rhythm players—Kenny Barron, John Hicks, Dave Holland, Rufus Reid, Jack DeJohnette, and often his old friend, the spirited Dick Berk. As you’d expect of a guy who could whisk the changes, Nick had bebop DNA, but the thing about him is he would try anything: If it was jazz, he was game. He worked with Vic Dickenson, Doc Cheatham, Three Baritone Saxophone Band (Gary Smulyan, Ronnie Cuber), Mingus Big Band, Phil Woods, Dewey Redman; he loved jamming at Dick Gibson’s Colorado jazz parties, and took a back seat to no one. In Paris, Nick had sniffed that Gerry Mulligan’s pianoless quartet always played the changes, whereas in Ted’s, they really went outside. But he loved Mulligan, and gave him props often, producing one of the hippest of tributes (“Gerrylike”) on the 1996 Flight of the Eagle. Nick’s sound had a fine, wood-grain finish with just enough grit to underscore its brawny valor—it was a sound you could easily love, like the man himself.