Mat Maneri, Kris Davis and Ingrid Laubrock
Tuesday, October 11
Better than: Contemplating a change in the weather.
Owing to its slightly larger size and moodier—perhaps broodier—timbre, the viola is typically characterized by the fact that it isn’t a violin. People have described it to me as the violin’s big brother, a violin after puberty, and even as a fiddle with a college education. 20th-century composers like Morton Feldman have composed fine pieces that give the instrument top billing (see “The Viola In My Life”), but its relegation to backup harmonies in a canon’s worth of string quartets is generally the image that sticks.
String whiz Mat Maneri is wielding only his viola for the two-evening stand he kicked off last night at the Stone. It’d be tempting to cast this as a bold move or a brash declaration of identity/independence, but the truth is that Maneri shifts between violin and viola with the same frequency and ease as his shifts between electric and acoustic instruments. The two musicians who rounded out last night’s drummerless chamber-jazz trio made the decision seem even more natural. Kris Davis is a pianist who is beginning to cut a surprising path in improv circles, her touch responsively supple while making no secret of its roots in contemporary classical music. Meanwhile, German-bred, London-educated multireedist Ingrid Laubrock brought her tenor horn to the gig; it’s not the lowest of the saxes she’s fluent on (that would be baritone), but it was an ideal complement to the deeper tones of the viola. There were moments when the closeness of their lines masked just which instrument was emitting a given flourish.
Davis’s opening, a raft of slow seductively spaced notes that eventually elicited slithering phrases from Maneri and Laubrock, seemed to set the tone for much of what followed. The violist is a microtonalist (like his late father, the legendary New England educator and saxist Joe Maneri), so the drama in his lines is often strictly a virtue of his thirst for melodic interaction and not used to tug the audience’s heartstrings. The untitled piece belonged to Davis (“just call it ‘One’,” she said later), but even though there were more pages of musical notation than the music stands could hold, it was clear that much was being improvised. The result was often both ambient and suspenseful, Davis marking time with chords as Laubrock shifted her attack from straight blowing to hoarse, breathy growls.
Maneri is something of an instinctive interactionist/collaborator. Since the ’90s, when he was recording his breakout work with pianist Matthew Shipp, he’s made his presence felt by remaining singularly responsive to what’s transpiring around him. He rarely took the lead last night, and it wasn’t merely a measure of the fact that Davis and Laubrock brought most of the tunes. On “Chant,” a Laubrock contribution, it was the saxist’s turn to build an edifice for the other two improvisers to climb and skitter across. At one point the saxist used circular, exquisitely controlled breathing to lay down a droning buzz, a whirr that grounded her partners’ hyperactivity. Later, when Maneri played a rugged solo that went from Gypsy-like melancholy to lyrical classicism, he almost seemed to be having a conversation with himself. When it was finished, someone in the audience asked Maneri if he could explain what he’d just done. “Absolutely not,” he said, half-chuckling. Then he thought better of it. “But maybe we can set up a forum for it, something that involves trusts and grants and stuff like that.”
Critical bias: The Stone is a true oasis, unless you’re actually looking for a beverage.
Overheard: “Weren’t you mad at me for about an hour some years ago?”
Random notebook dump: Tonight’s participants include scene heavies Matt Moran, Gerald Cleaver, Lucian Ban and John Hébert.