Inclusive and Finely-Drawn: Mat Maneri Quartet in Springfield
In the sound world, we are accustomed to equating intensity with high volume and fast tempos. But as Mat Maneri’s ASH Quartet demonstrated on October 15, it is entirely possible to produce intensity at low volume and at slow tempos. The Quartet: Mat Maneri, viola, Lucian Ban, piano, Brandon Lopez, bass and Randy Peterson, drums, gave us a 70-minute set of power-filled originals at the Community Music School of Springfield (CMSS) without raising their voice or breaking a sweat.
The band is on an extensive tour of the U.S. and Europe in support of their recent Sunnyside release, ASH (John Hébert plays bass on the recording). It follows on the heels of their 2019 effort, DUST. The third part of the trilogy, MIST, will be out in the near future.
Wearing various shades of black, the musicians improvised freely and performed selections from the aforementioned records. Both the compositions, written by Maneri, and the group improvisations, rarely moved beyond Adagio (66-76 bpm). Of course, beats per minute is not the most useful measure of the work, since the music seemed to flutter and float, suspended in the breeze like the blowball of a dandelion. The music was played at low to moderate volume, forcing us to lean in and concentrate.
Cultures everywhere employ a much broader tone world than we’re used to, and Maneri is a master of microtones, the notes between the notes of the equal tempered scale most westerners grow up hearing. Maneri’s father, the great saxophonist and clarinetist Joe Maneri, devoted his life to exploring microtones, which he taught to generations of students at the New England Conservatory of Music. During an interview on WHMP’s Talk the Talk, Maneri told me about the 72-note scale system his father developed, and how comfortable he became with the pitch-rich music of India, Greece and the Jewish and Arab world.
Imagine if painters could only use primary colors, forbidden from mixing pigments and bending color. What a limited universe that would be. Isn’t it the same for music? Why commit ourselves to so few ingredients? We must free ourselves from the tyranny of living in a right note/wrong note world.
The Mat Maneri Quartet has managed to create its own sound world, a way of working that is highly intuitive, reactive and distinctive. Using indeterminate tempos and an expanded palette of pitches, Maneri and his bandmates wove music that was dark, mournful, dramatic and a little disorienting. Near the end of the program they “broke character” and played an (unnamed) up tempo piece that swung at times and made me think of the great Carla Bley, who passed away two days later.
Intuitive, reactive and distinctive describes the largely unsung Randy Peterson. “Far from the spectacle of music,” wrote the No Idea Festival, “drummer Randy Peterson has been quietly cultivating a singular approach to pulse and time that is both deeply profound and mysteriously idiosyncratic.” Playing with brushes and his hands a good amount of the time, Peterson created forward momentum while playing metrically free. Mat told me Peterson was a kick-ass bebop drummer when he first met Joe Maneri. Over many years working with both Joe and Mat - documented on an important series of 1990s recordings for ECM, Leo and hatOLOGY - Peterson has opened up his approach, becoming the perfect drummer for this music.
Lucian Ban is Maneri’s most frequent collaborator. Their duo concert seven years ago in the same elegant CMSS space, remains stuck in my head. Their work together also includes a fantastic trio with saxophonist John Surman (see Transylvanian Folk Songs, ECM, 2020), and recordings made with Evan Parker, Abraham Burton, and others. After the Springfield concert, Ban and Maneri were flying to Birmingham, Alabama to perform Bartok folk songs and compositions of George Enescu with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. On Sunday, Ban’s technique of dampening the piano strings with one hand made him a perfect collaborator with his fellow string players, while at points he let the piano ring and brighten the bandstand.
Brandon Lopez replaced John Hébert, who couldn’t make the tour. A generation younger than his bandmates, the 35 year old Lopez reinforced his reputation as one of the most promising young bassists on the scene. He’s been mentored by William Parker, and has been part of New York’s Art For Arts family for some time. We heard him two years ago in Goshen with trumpeter Steph Richards’ ensemble. His deep, woody timbre and his varied means of sound production, were delivered with confidence and conviction. He fit right in.
One of the highlights of my presenting career was a 2004 concert by Joe and Mat Maneri at Bezanson Recital Hall. I was happy to hear that Mat also cherished that evening (and still has the poster). I’ll always remember Mat walking to his father after the performance and kissing him on the forehead, a spontaneous and genuine gesture. When I think of Mat Maneri, I think about gestures and mark making, the subtle and idiosyncratic ways he makes sound on the viola. There were times when his playing was barely audible but still projected power, and he displayed a level of detail and control that was precise and quite impressive.
I invited him back to the Valley when the trilogy was complete.