Courtesy of Mat Maneri
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH MAT MANERI
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
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
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,
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
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