Mat Maneri / Jim Black / Craig Taborn / Assif Tsahar / Aaron Stewart

May 17, 2004


Hopscotch 21


Junk Magic

Thirsty Ear THI 57144.2

Ever since he first appeared on disc as part of his father, reedist Joe Maneri’s, Boston-based microtonal trio, violist Matt Maneri has been turning heads with his playing. Versatile enough to move effortlessly from the harshest excesses of loud, so-called ecstatic jazz to the supplest examples of understated chamber improv, he’s created a legitimate role for the bloated fiddle in exploratory situations.

These two discs add luster to the achievements of this now New York-based string-slinger. But, to be honest, he sounds more commanding on the nine free improvisations recorded with reedist Assif Tsahar and percussionist Jim Black then in the more tightly controlled atmosphere of keyboardist Craig Taborn’s date.

JAM’s advantage is that it spreads responsibility for the creations among the three participants. Except for the fact that he has to perform at a more restrained volume because of his instrument, there’s never any indication, for instance, that Black is merely the accompanist to the improvising duo.

That said, some of the most impressive work comes from Maneri on the final track. Described as playing an electric 5-string violin, he’s the antithesis of the fiddling fusion speed demon. On “Part 9”, for instance, his pace is slow, but still creates double-stopped, angled multiphonics. Only when Tsahar’s meandering trilling turns sibilant alto-like timbres to more intense overblowing, does Maneri’s multi-string pulsation get louder. Black contributes irregular pulses that conclude with clip-clop, ambulatory expressions, after which the saxist and violinist emulate an imaginary meeting between Albert Ayler and Leroy Jenkins.

In contrast, “Part 6” finds Tsahar weaving tweaks and trills into low-pitched output from his bass clarinet. Amazingly Maneri’s deliberate hesitation and wiggling note placement move from Eastern European single-string patterns to an accordion-like squeezed tone. Black’s pitter-pattering flams and rolls and Tsahar’s near-inaudible exposition means that the torque put on the tempo by the fiddler spins out a fleet counter theme which polyphonically redefines the piece.

Tongue slaps, intense reed biting and a cornucopia of fog horn effects give the reedman plenty of irreverent inflections he can contribute to musical expositions, as do Maneri’s bow lifting ponticello, arco beats and snaky, pizzicato fills. When the percussionist adds subtle cymbal pressure, irregular snare pulses and what seem to be tambourine shakes, sideslipping tones not only resolves themselves into new melodies, but also make the trio sound like a larger group.

JUNK MAGIC features a quintet, as opposed to JAM’s trio. With Taborn, who is best known as a member of altoist Tim Berne’s groups, programming as well as playing different keyboards, the textures available outpace those from three acoustic instruments. But a little bit of electronica can go a long way. There are times during the seven tracks that the result sounds like playtime at the cloning lab, with that human touch lacking.

Adding to this robotic disconnect is the drumming of David King, who also plays with acid-jazz band the Bad Plus. While many tunes here are more rhythmically powerful than those on the JAM CD, the beats themselves are often overly mechanized. King’s favored lick — or what Taborn asks him to play — is the backbeat and that vamp is as omnipresent here as on any techno date.

Furthermore, tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart may have worked with Anthony Braxton and Steve Coleman. But on the evidence here, his solos exhibit more smooth or fusion tones than you would hear on either man’s CDs. “Primatica”, for instance, finds the saxman slurring tones in a limited arc, to join claves, off-beats and cymbal slices from the drummer. Maybe this is modified Detroit techno backbeat?

“Mystero” may be a little more abstract, as sine waves meet off-kilter snare and bass drum beats. But the semi-sweet tenor line sounds as if it’s been electronically altered, perhaps with an EWI. The drumbeats seem programmed as well, with only Maneri’s spiky, dissonant playing adding some humanity to the proceedings.

It’s the same story on “Bodies at Rest and in Motion”, where Taborn’s acoustic piano pitter-patters and King’s drum thumping only gain mettle when they meet fiddle arpeggios. Maneri sawing away on all strings adds some additional tough — and humanoid — input. On his own, the pianist’s conventional soloing and the backup loops are as strident and mechanized as what you’d hear on a video game soundtrack.

Then on “The Golden Age” [!], at 11-plus minutes, the CD’s longest track, Maneri’s legato, double stopped classical overlay lasts only until ululating, calliope-style crescendos and dive-bombing buzzes are exposed from the keyboardist and percussionist respectively. As the backbeat kicks in and an electronic ambience settles over the soundfield, the fiddle timbre doubles as well. Soon squeaky string ponticello and whirling electronic squeals end the piece.

Some may regard this CD as magic, others as junk. It’s actually somewhere in between. Taborn is trying to introduce new concepts to expand the simple rhythms and melodies that characterize techno, electronica and breakbeats. But he doesn’t appear to have given himself enough leeway to whole-heartedly hook into free music.

Definitely someone to watch as he evolves an original style, Taborn’s efforts here come out second best when compared to the acoustic professionalism on the JAM disc. But Manner proves his versatility on each session.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Jam: 1. Part 1 2. Part 2 3. Part 3 4. Part 4 5. Part 5 6. Part 6 7. Part 7 8. Part 8 9. Part 9

Personnel: Jam: Assif Tsahar (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Mat Maneri (electric 5-string violin); Jim Black (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Junk: 1. Junk Magic 2. Mystero 3. Shining Through 4. Primatica 5. Bodies at Rest and in Motion 6. Stalgmite 7. The Golden Age

Personnel: Junk: Aaron Stewart (tenor saxophone); Craig Taborn (piano, keyboard, programming); Mat Maneri (violas); David King (drums)