Mat Maneri Quartet featuring Joe McPhee
Somewhere along the way, a corner of the jazz world began taking itself very seriously — so seriously, in fact, that it started alienating its listeners by the truckload. It might have been shortly after the time of John Coltrane’s Meditations — 1966, if you need an exact year — that this sub-genre started internalizing jazz to such a guardedly personal point that it spun off into the realm of the unlistenable. These cathartic and cacophonic jam sessions perhaps spoke to rigidly mathematical minds or the obsessively avant-garde, but held little appeal even for the aficionado.
Mat Maneri and his fellow musicians abide by this same ultramodern philosophy that says jazz should be obtuse and elusive, a meeting of the stuffy classroom and primal scream therapy. Sustain, the group’s newest effort on which soprano saxophonist Joe McPhee features as a guest, has nine tracks, five of which are various interpretations on the title of “Alone,” and the rest of which are pure, unadulterated noise. You could find the same sprawling, run-of-the-gamut approach in other free jazz musicians like David S. Ware, but at least Ware adopts the vaguely comprehensible spiritual approach of Coltrane. In Maneri’s case, all I hear is a group of precocious and restless children let loose in the studio. To judge its merits would either take a PhD in ethnomusicology or post-traumatic dementia, neither of which I have at the present time.
This doesn’t have to be the case. Take Clifford Brown, an expert mathematician and a skilled chess player, as an example to the contrary. In spite of its precisely calculated structure, his trumpet and pen (especially on his original compositions such as “George’s Dilemma”) produced some of the most universally appealing bebop ever imagined. Or think of Georges Perec’s Oulipian novel Life: A User’s Manual, an immensely readable work of fiction, though its action is predicated entirely on the moves of a knight on a chessboard. In both cases, an attractive shroud conceals the deceptively elaborate framework, thus making it accessible on several levels: take it at face value or dig deeper. To me, this is the best form of any art, in that it captures your interest almost instantly on a superficial level, and then continually reveals new pleasures that are a mix of the sensual and the academic. Why should pleasures of the mind, body and soul be divided?
But Sustain does divide them indeed, and if you want to get the most out of the album, you’ll have to stock up on beans and rice and settle into an armchair by the hi-fi for the duration of the winter, engaged in a long period of taxing hyperanalysis. Have plenty of psychotropic drugs on hand to better aid comprehension, and the novels of William Burroughs if you get bored. Or, on the other hand, you can put on Study In Brown and settle into the same armchair to read Life: A User’s Manual — a far more rewarding endeavor, if you ask me.
Thirsty Ear: http://www.thirstyear.com