TO HEAR Mat Maneri play his violin or viola is to hear a unique jazz message, and a new birth song from the most familiar of instruments.
Born in Brooklyn in 1969, Maneri grew up in the very mind of music. His father, Joe Maneri — the son of Sicilian immigrants — played clarinet and saxophone in an array of local wedding and bar mitzvah bands before achieving recognition as a musical innovator and scholar, eventually being appointed to the New England Conservatory of Music and making a number of key albums with an ensemble, which included Mat, exploring 12-tone music and microtones.
Mat continued to develop as a powerful creative musical force in his own right, as part of a movement of free improvisers and change makers in New York who transformed the sound and meaning of jazz.
Five of them came together on the 2002 album Sustain: Mat on viola, William Parker, the greatest bass player of his generation, who with drummer Gerald Cleaver and pianist Craig Taborn (who both play on Sustain) were to form the trio Famers by Nature, and the veteran saxophonist Joe McPhee, a pioneer of radical free improvisation since the late ’60s.
The opener is Alone (Origin), in which Maneri lacerates his viola to harrowing effect and Parker’s single plucked notes magnify a sense of terrible isolation.
In Peace follows, with much more collectivity. McPhee’s soprano horn sings out ruefully above Cleaver’s brushed cymbals, Parker’s delving bass and Taborn’s electric keys. Then it is Taborn’s echoing solo acoustic piano, which stamps starkly through Alone (Construct).
The title track has Parker’s huge bass notes throbbing like sonic pillars rising from the deep earth while Maneri’s viola wails and Cleaver’s cymbals madly rustle.
McPhee’s soprano ululates powerfully in sobbing chorus. The track segues into the cavernous symphony of Parker’s bowed bass solo of Alone (Unravel). Then it is McPhee’s astonishing storm of notes at the outset of Nerve, while his confreres add to the onrush.
Sustain makes a mighty and often discomforting sound and is an apt preface to Maneri’s 2005 album, recorded in the wake of the George W BushTony Blair invasion of Iraq, and simply titled Pentagon.
Taborn is there again with bassist John Herbert, drummers Tom Rainey and John McLellan, Ben Gerstein on trombone and Father Joe, 78 at the time, playing organ, acoustic and electric pianos and alto sax.
The only note on the sleeve is the familiar quotation of US militarism: “Don’t shoot before you see the whites of their eyes,” yet the album in its entirety, despite its acclimating anger and fury, in parts carries tenderness and empathy like great poems of war.
In the first track, Ava, Maneri’s violin sounds almost lyrical, fronting the ensemble before the drummers pound the sound furiously electrifies through WWP.
In Third Hand — the Fallen the tone message becomes one of lamentation and the sense of threnody deepens in Wound, with Joe’s piano chimes, Gerstein’s slides and Mat’s rueful violin all sparking grief and rancour.
Joe picks up his alto for Howl in my Head, which passes into the spiritual Motherless Child — and an incensed ensemble weeping for the war orphans of Iraq and the world over.
Joe’s ironic scatting opens the track Pentagon , where a group of US musicians consider the slaughter pursued by their own government as we consider the same done by ours, and the following track, The War Room, we hear the urderous palaver of Bush and his generals, and in the sounding melee of Maneri and is band-mates we also hear the telephone calls to London and to Blair.
For although this is music, free and accusatory, made by 21st-century jazz troubadours in the summer of 2004 in a New York studio, its notes toll for us too.
Again, the beating heart of jazz, as it has done so many times over the last century, strikes out against war, against empire and the governance of death.