The term “avant-garde star” is an oxymoron: in the subterranean hothouses of new music — the world of free improvisation, ambiguous tonality, and resolutely undanceable rhythms — audiences are small and so are record sales. But if anyone cuts the image of a star, it’s 31-year-old violinist Mat Maneri. For one thing, Maneri looks the part: tall, with dark, deep-set eyes, a long pointed nose, a goatee, and
dark brown hair that he either grows into dark ringlets or shaves close to his skull depending on the season and his mood. For another, Maneri can play. A spate of releases on the prestigious German ECM label (including two due in stores next Tuesday, March 13) attest to solid technique and an improvisational imagination informed by lucid compositional logic. In fact, Maneri’s scope goes beyond the violin — no one sounds like him, on any instrument. When the Boston Creative Music Alliance hypes Maneri’s upcoming concert at the ICA (March 10) with the tag “a leading improvisational voice of his generation,” they could be understating the case. Pianist Matthew Shipp, who often plays with Maneri and produced the recording Blue Decco (Thirsty Ear) with the violinist’s quartet, put it most succinctly in an interview with Ed Hazell in Jazzis magazine: “I think he’s the beacon of the future.”
Maneri is the son of Joe Maneri — the legendary New England Conservatory professor, reed player, composer, and microtonal theorist who was drawn back into public performance by Maneri the Younger — and the two appear on several of those ECM albums, including the new duet disc Blessed. Mat’s own career has been somewhat checkered. He began taking violin lessons at the age of five, attended Framingham High School, and then moved on to Natick’s performing-arts-oriented Walnut Hill School with a full scholarship as principal violinist in the school’s string quartet. But he dropped out, fed up with the regimen of classical-music study. For a while he considered being a painter like his mother, but then, he says, he got into “bad things one shouldn’t do that teenagers do” and “went down all the wrong paths,” until he missed playing so much that he applied to the New England Conservatory. By then he’d earned a GED, and he’d been studying with Robert Koff, a founding member of the Juilliard String Quartet who now lives and teaches in Lexington. So he applied to the New England Conservatory, aced his audition, stayed for a few months, and dropped out again.
By this time, however, Maneri was dedicated to playing. “Koff was the guy where I really felt like I was doing something on the instrument instead of simply learning how to,” Maneri told me recently on the phone from his home in Brooklyn. And although it’s not stated anywhere in the liner notes, his new solo album Trinity (ECM) is a kind of dedication to Koff, its formal concerns a tribute to the studies of the Baroque that he had undertaken with the elder string master, to the point where Maneri tuned his instruments to the Baroque 415 A frequency instead of the 440 of modern temperament, and worked on Bach partitas and sonatas for months before writing and performing the music on the album. “That was the basis for the whole record,” says Maneri, “the lack of vibrato, the tuning, the whole vibe.”
But although it gives an idea of Maneri’s formal rigor, the Baroque is hardly his whole bag. Musically, Maneri’s a polyglot. His arsenal includes an array of electrified and acoustic instruments, such as a cello-like electric baritone violin. He’s played frequently with guitarist Joe Morris’s unabashedly avant-garde quartet, but also with the sweetly accessible Indian-jazz ensemble Natraj, and he’s lent electric-Miles-like squawking wah-wah support to Mike Rivard’s Club d’Elf. He’s fully absorbed not only jazz, but also the Middle Eastern folk music and microtonal scales that are his father’s stock in trade. But that doesn’t make his work any more accessible to virgin ears. The outer fringes of jazz acquire their appeal with the rock crowd by virtue of volume, rhythmic propulsion, and multi-note assault. Coltrane’s “sheets of sound” bathe the listener, and one can feel the blues-inflected cadences in his obsessive arpeggios. But Maneri offers none of the familiar jazz patterns. Instead of long, overarching lines, he phrases in short bursts of notes. Like soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (to whom he otherwise bears little musical resemblance), Maneri proceeds with stepwise, one-note-at-time deliberation.
And yet, Maneri’s virtuosity is everywhere apparent — in his beautiful control of tone, in the moment-to-moment details that unfold in his playing, in the compositional integrity of each of his pieces, in what visual artists might call the variety of his “mark-making”: spidery multi-note runs, rhythmically charged double-stops and plucking, subtle and dramatic dynamic shifts. On the album with his father, Blessed, as on most of his duet recordings, Maneri achieves an uncommon rapport with his partner. The two proceed in feints and starts, dots and dashes of sound that gradually accrue into prolix dialogues, the deep buzz of Mat’s electric baritone violin set against the limpid tone of Joe’s clarinet, or Mat’s dancing violin filigrees around the single-note phrases of Joe’s piano. In his work with guitarist Joe Morris — especially the quartet album A Cloud of Black Birds — the counterpoint between the two string players becomes so intense that the rising figures in Maneri’s short, breath-like phrases take on the directness of speech. And Trinity is a tour de force that includes a very Indian raga-like take on John Coltrane’s “Sun Ship,” a gritty version of Joe Morris’s “Lattice,” and the three-part title tune, which is essentially a tone-row improvisational tribute to the sonatas and partitas of Bach.
When I ask Maneri about his phrasing, he concedes that he’s looking for a vocal effect. “I don’t want to play phrases that are so long and unnatural that they’re like circular breathing or something. That doesn’t interest me. I want to make a short, interesting statement and develop it. Like you would talk. My father’s really into that. I think that has to do a lot with Middle Eastern influences on our playing. My father was a master Greek clarinetist, and I’ve been playing a lot of Indian music, and lately I’ve been hanging out with a lot of Moroccan cats, even learning Arabic” — and here he laughs. “Their whole music is like telling a story,” he adds, mimicking the rising and falling cadences of Arabic speech.
“That was definitely an influence,” Maneri continues, “but I tend not to want any real-world-sounding thing in my music. I want to find a way to infiltrate it so that you don’t notice it’s happened. Rock influences me, the Baroque influences me, Miles Davis, whatever, but I don’t want to be copping licks. I want to infiltrate it into my sound so much that you can’t say, ‘That’s so-and-so,’ or ‘Aha, that’s Stravinsky,’ or ‘Listen, he’s doing a little klezmer lick.’ When I play a piece it’s got to be a complete piece, it’s compositional, even though it’s improvised. I start with the theme and then I play off of it, and I don’t want to joke around. I don’t take it in the comedy route, although there can be humor in there. But I want the humor on its own merit, not referential.”
It’s interesting that one of the most explicit “real world” references on Trinity is Coltrane’s “Sun Ship.” In a way, it’s the most Maneri-like of Coltrane tunes — an angular four-note figure, it’s been described as a fragment of a scale. But on the original recording, the 1965 Coltrane quartet — with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison — take it at full-bore up-tempo, driven by Jones’s free pulse. Maneri takes the tune back to its Indian sources, with an out-of-tempo introductory opening in the typical Indian alaap manner, tambura-like drones, some gentle, meditative Indian scales, and agitated longer tones and rests rather than Coltrane’s unrelenting assault. The statement of Coltrane’s four-note theme doesn’t come until a good couple of minutes into the piece.
“I never do that,” says Maneri of the piece’s explicit borrowings, “but Steve Lake, the producer, had heard the Indian stuff I did and said, ‘Why don’t you do something like that?’ ” Maneri resisted. “But on the second day of recording, I was in London. I turned on the BBC and Ravi Shankar was on TV saying, ‘And, yeah, I had such a great time with Coltrane, blah, blah, blah, and he was really into the Indian thing and that connection changed my life.’ I was watching this right before I had to record, and I felt like I wanted to do a little tribute to that moment because it was so cool. So I did ‘Sun Ship’ but then made it more Indian. Because every time I heard that tune” — and he sings a bit — “it sounded like a tabla” — and here he “transposes” the phrase to a popping percussive four-note drum figure.
As compositional as Maneri’s playing is, he downplays his own writing. All of Blessed except for the title tune is freely improvised. Maneri’s beautifully integrated duet with William Parker on Blue Decco was more talked-about than written. And yet, virtually all of Trinity depends on a written component. “I never claim to be a serious composer as in the Western sense of writing complete pieces,” he says. “When I write these things, I write like two-minute pieces to be improvised on. I write something that would lend the listener a basis to understand why I’m improvising off of it instead of starting free.”
One of the most moving pieces on Trinity is “November 1st,” not only for its dramatic development — from softly stated theme to furious climax — but for its technique. It’s the one piece that suggests overdubbing beyond all the double stops and simultaneous part-playing — the kind of thing that has wowed guitarists about the multi-part picking of Robert Johnson. “There was one moment there where things really opened up,” says Maneri with satisfaction. “I really felt like I was playing two independent lines at once. I was listening to the playback and thinking, ‘I’m like two people, I finally got it.’ That’s pretty much what I was picking up from the Bach stuff. To improvise that effectively without sounding really bad!” And he laughs again. “I’m not trying to gloat or anything, but there’s two minutes there where I really get it. So hopefully, as I get older, there will be more than two minutes on a record. But for now I’m satisfied that I actually got it through there.”
The Mat Maneri Quintet, with trumpeter Dave Ballou, vibraphonist Mat Moran, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Randy Peterson, perform this Saturday, March 10, at the ICA Theater, 955 Boylston Street, at 8 p.m. Call 868-3172.