Courtesy of Mat Maneri


AUM Fidelity


When I was six, my parents bought me a violin (I wanted a GI Joe with a kung fu grip, but it wasn't to be had) and gave me lessons. Correction, I should say that they forced me to take lessons. But this young man was determined that he was not musically inclined and four thousand dollars or there abouts of violin lessons down the shitter and eight years later, I quit playing. Four violins have been sitting dormant in my home for well over a decade, gathering dust, and there is not a day that passes by that I am not filled with profound regret that I did not take the instrument more seriously and perhaps asserted myself more to learning its grace. But the days that I most regret not continuing my violin studies are the days that I am in the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, watching maestro Itzhak Perlman soar through the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, or the days I find myself sitting in my office with a recording of Jascha Heifetz playing Vivaldi, or more recently, the days I am listening to Mat Maneri's sessions with his father, Joe Maneri, Joe Morris, or Matthew Shipp. Now, Maneri is not a pioneer of utilizing the violin in a jazz setting. I think most scholars and critics would give that nod to Stephane Grappelli. What the younger Maneri is, is interesting. He takes risks. He is bold, unconventional, and more importantly, his own man. So he is a candidate for a seat on the Roadshow and I caught up with him at his home, just back from a weekend gig and he spoke about his beginnings, his work with Shipp and Morris, and his life and times, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

MAT MANERI: I started as a classical violinist at age five and by the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I wanted to get into jazz and I did so by quitting music for a little while and becoming an art student. That didn't work out and I just really got into playing jazz or improvisation as well with my father (Joe Maneri), of course. I started playing with as many jazz groups as I could to learn. That is how I got into it. From there, I always wanted to control my own destiny, if you will. I liked to write music. I liked to create a new sound and so I spent a lot of time setting up my own groups and that kind of thing, recording my own material at first. I took a lot of time with that and actually developed my own way of doing things or my own sound.

FJ: Your father is a respected tenor saxophonist. What possessed you to play the violin?

MAT MANERI: Yeah, well, I started really on piano and I didn't like it. I was frustrated by it. I was four and it had all these keys and it seemed very big and daunting and didn't really seem to be sympathetic to me. So we went to a music store and I looked at different instruments and I saw the violin with four simple strings and I thought, "That looks easy. That looks like something I can handle." And that is the honest truth, Fred, and little did I know that it is much more difficult (laughing). It is a very hard instrument for a beginner and my parents kind of basically forced me like most parents do with young children to take music lessons and I did. I just did it and once you get over the first hump of that, I didn't really appreciate the violin until I started studying with Robert Koff, who was the founding member of the Julliard String Quartet. He got me really into baroque music and somehow the baroque style of violin with the vibrato or the certain way of phrasing with the bow that is much different than the more modern classical techniques, which didn't appeal to me and it also connects to my way of improvising, I think. So it took me a long time to appreciate the violin, but that is how I started.

FJ: Let's touch on your approach.

MAT MANERI: Oh, I suppose, like most people who start improvising, they just try to do what they can do on it. It wasn't a success at first. There is a lot of obvious problems that you are up against. The way you learn rhythm in classical does not translate to jazz and I think you often hear that with jazz violinists. Their time always sounds kind of sugary and corny. So I spent my time really trying to find the tones that I liked and that led me to play lower notes a lot of the time, which led me to play viola or the six string electric violin or the baritone electric violin, so I could get the more lower, substantial notes, which have a richer harmonic content to me and over the time, which was just hard work. I got together with this drummer Randy Peterson and we used to play three or four times a week, all day long, just working on time and working on phrasing with each other, melody and groove combined and that's been a key for how I play. You shed away cliché after cliché. You shed away everything you can shed away that is not useful to the music.

FJ: What lessons did you father impart to you concerning this music?

MAT MANERI: It was never like that. He was a teacher at the conservatory and I never studied with him, but seeing him teach other students and seeing him compose music, I think I got a lot through osmosis if you will, just hearing his lessons. He taught composition, theory, and harmony and real rudimentary stuff and then inch by inch had them progress through the different forms of music you had to learn to be a composer, from Palestrina to this, to that, to doing a motet, to doing Beethoven string quartet, and just hearing him compose at night. I strongly remember that, influenced, just hearing him compose. The whole thing was about form. It wasn't about don't play this or don't play that. Do whatever you want. Music to him was a combination of the essentials. It has melody. It has rhythm. It has time. It has counterpoint. It has harmonies and how abstractly or how dissonant or not dissonant or how far you go with that and into the realm of microtones is up to you. I think the essentials were always the same.

FJ: Let's touch on your collaborations with Joe Morris.

MAT MANERI: My relationship to him is a funny one, being that we were both in Boston, of course, he started out earlier than I did, obviously, but I remember seeing him once at a gig in like the Eighties and I think I even opened up for him once. We didn't talk much. Sometime later, we where suddenly thrust together via an ECM record with my father, and then I did the first quartet record with him, basically, around the same time and started building a relationship from that point. It's been a growing relationship, which is nice. We have become friends over the time, where in the beginning, we were just two musicians who just kind of knew each other and I was kind of hired to do work with his quartet. Now, I can say that he is a close friend and we both acknowledge that we both have very different styles, but when we play together or if I play in his group of course, his style is featured and I go with that but I can bring something of my own to that and he understands that or vice versa and we both acknowledge the fact that we're both very original players and that makes it work in a way, but that were able to listen to each other and really understand each other is what musicians should be doing. Not that we have the same ideals about where we want to take our music. He wants to do this. I want to do that. The real core of it is the same. We want to make real good music and so that brought us together and made us have a good friendship I think.

FJ: And Matthew Shipp?

MAT MANERI: Matt Shipp is a somewhat similar story. He hired me for a concert in Boston in I think '86. I was a punk teenager kind of guy playing free violin and for some reason he hired me because he wanted a violinist on it. He was in New York, I think, already at the time. He went back to New York and I didn't get to see him for a year and basically he saw me play a duet with Randy Peterson at the Knitting Factory and that kind of rekindled, not a friendship, but a starting point, and also via Joe Morris that kind of brought us together. Then it kind of started out a fragile thing with the first record we did together, kind of dipping into his style a little bit and then over the years we've really been able to kind of come closer and closer together in different situations.

FJ: Reflect on your trio record on Leo, Fifty-One Sorrows.

MAT MANERI: Yes. To me that represents probably the closest thing to my own personal thing. It was really built up off of what Randy and I have been working on since the Eighties and then also via Ed Schuller who has been on several records I have done. I think we really brought it to a point where I am like, "Yeah, this is where I want to take my music," at least in an improvising way and the way I wrote the music is very simple, but it has feeling in it to me that it is something I want to display the feel of it from the first note to the end. It is not just like a chart and then like blowing, like a bebop thing. The whole thing itself is all one unit even thought its written in an improvised fashion because it has something to do with like the openness of the written part or the kind of form restrictions on the improvised part that kind of make it a piece onto itself and the way we touch the instruments has been developed over a certain amount of time and the influences of the jazz world mixed with kind of new harmonies and new melodies we are trying to work on. To me, it's one of my favorites as far as like my real own, you know, just my own personal style kind of thing.

FJ: How does that differ from your Hat Hut release with Matthew Shipp, So What?

MAT MANERI: That to me is really, I really enjoyed that record so much cause originally, the idea was to do a Miles Davis tribute record, which I wasn't crazy about the idea initially. It was like, "Oh, great. I have to do a tribute." It was suggested by the record company because we were sitting at dinner once and I said how much I liked Miles and in this situation or that, or whatever. So, of course, Werner Uehlinger says, "Why don't you do a Miles tribute record?" I'm like, "Oh, God, a tribute record." But he was like, "What if we made the instrumentation Matthew Shipp and Randy?" And so I was like, "Wait a second. That would be so out." And then I took it even further and said, "What if I wrote half the material with my own stuff and kind of design a new sound, but using a tribute to Miles?" And the whole thing about the tribute and what I am proud of is that I didn't go at all to try and make it sound like a Miles band. In a sense, I really wanted to take certain elements, he wrote very little music, actually. Most of the stuff he played was written by Wayne Shorter or whatever, so it is actually hard to find the tunes that I wanted to do that he wrote, but then I wanted to deconstruct them in a way that I was able to reinvent them in my own light, the way he reinvented them from every period of his career. He played a ballad in 1955 and he played the same tune in 1965 with a totally different thing. For my mind, that was the biggest tribute that I could do, was to reinvent what he himself was reinventing all the time. In that respect, I was able to get Randy and Matt to kind of use their strengths, Randy with his sultry swing and Matt, improvising with these thick chords. All these different elements into a Miles tune, I thought, was a great idea in the end. I don't know if it actually worked in the market, but it turned out to be one of my prouder moments.

FJ: And Soul Search?

MAT MANERI: That to me was a really relaxed situation. Like I said, Joe and I have developed this really nice friendship and we had an opportunity to do a duet record, but it was more like we said let's get together in a basement and just blow for a few hours and that's what we did. We didn't listen back to tapes. We didn't try to go for a certain thing. It was just, here is Joe Morris and here is Mat Maneri. They are just hanging out in the basement. Maybe we had a beer, a cup of coffee or something and then we played a number and then we took a walk outside and we went back and played another number. Later on, we listened to the tape a week later and picked a few cuts and put it together. It was the best situation because the whole idea of it was that there was no idea except that it was a meeting of Joe Morris and Mat Maneri, bringing the two things to the table and kind of enjoying each other. So it was a very relaxed, very fun thing for me to do. It was like two friends getting together and just kind of rapping, but bringing out, hopefully, the best in each other.

FJ: And your latest release on the Thirsty Ear label, Blue Decco.

MAT MANERI: Yeah, that's a whole different approach. That was about starting from scratch with people that I don't have a long term playing experience with except for William (Parker) and a little bit with Gerald (Cleaver). Craig (Taborn), I had just met and Gerald was relatively new to the quartet with Joe. I started designing some tunes for this situations and some ideas of what we should improvise on and I did a tune of Matt Shipp's on there and kind of invoked a lot of my favorite things about the jazz records that I used to like to listen to, but I was able to enjoy it in a different way with a new lineup and playing acoustic violin, which I don't often on records, kind of make it a jazz session in a way, which is a lot of fun and I am really happy with it. I am looking forward to trying to get that group some gigs now and possibly have that as a starting point to really start developing as a group now, which would be fun because at the time, it wasn't a group really. We got together once and did the record. We all got excited about the possibilities of what would happen if we started playing together and really started throwing ideas around and had more than four hours in a recording studio. I am looking forward to that for the future. I think this displays a really nice starting point for a lot of people, who may not be too familiar with my stuff. It has some familiar things and it has my personal thing mixed with some of my favorite things. It has a nice mixture of things going.

FJ: What are the subtle and noticeable differences between a violin, a viola, an electric violin, and baritone violin?

MAT MANERI: To me, they are different instruments, but I make them all sound like I am playing them. The only reason there is a difference between the electric and the acoustic instruments is obviously, the electric doesn't have a real body. It is a solid body. It is designed, basically, to go through an amplifier and it gets up to a certain volume like when you are playing with a loud drummer, it is not going to feedback on you or sound crappy and that is what got me into electric violin. If you are playing with a big group and everyone is bashing away, an acoustic violin through an amp, once it starts turning up, it sounds really whiny. The violin is intended to be in a nice, big hall and instead you are in this dry, little jazz room. The violin sounds like crap. It is an acoustic instrument that needs an acoustic setting. That is partially what the electric violin was about for me initially, but then, the ability to tack on low strings to an electric because it doesn't have a body, it is able to do that more effectively. But the way I approach it is the same way and I have enjoyed both. Now, I am very into playing acoustic viola. I have almost made that my number one thing, but it depends on the gig. I am trying to mix it up now and enjoy it like some sax players can go from soprano to alto to tenor to baritone or clarinet. Some guys play alto and flute. It is a nice way for me to use different instruments that are very similarly based, but actually have some playing challenges, when you change from one to another.

FJ: And the future?

MAT MANERI: I have a solo recording on ECM, acoustic violin and viola, that is coming out in January. I am starting my own little label that is releasing five records next year. They are pretty much all finished. One being a sextet with my father, Roy Campbell, Matthew Shipp, Randy Peterson, and Barre Phillips. Then there is a quintet with Joe McPhee, myself, my father on piano, Ed Schuller, and Randy Peterson. Then there is a quartet and then there is a trio and a duet, a historical thing, with my father from 1966, live in New York at this church in New York, which is totally phenomenal. It is kind of a little historical thing that I think people will dig. I was hoping to have it out by the end of this year, but due to time and getting enough money together to actually do it, hopefully, some time in the winter of 2001, you should hopefully start seeing these things come out.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and a painting by Jackson Pollack. Email Him.