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Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Mat Maneri Quartet - Ash (Sunnyside, 2023)

By Gregg Miller  

Ash is the Mat Maneri Quartet’s second installment to a proposed trilogy, following up on the lovely Dust (Sunnyside, 2019), with a projected third recording (Mist) in the works. The quartet is Mat Maneri’s viola, joined by Lucian Ban (piano), John Hébert (bass), and Randy Peterson (drums). Maneri has played with Hébert since the 1990s, Randy Peterson since the late 80s, and Ban since around 2010. The communication across the 4 players feels effortless, always searching, never trite. Each of the three titles in the trilogy signals something evanescent, elusive yet omnipresent and uncontrollable, atmospheric.

Maneri’s music invokes a distinctive tone world: moody and sorrowful, a bit decrepit; earthy decay against a background of blight blanched by hazy sunlight. The lilting movement of sound over a windswept field of somewhat sickly wildflowers, muted yellows and reds, dull greens and browns. New classical, but in truth a jazz combo that has dropped the formalism, kept the nocturne, and added a torch singer carried by the viola veering in and around pitchless angst. Maneri’s viola is mourning incarnate. I could listen to the first three pieces of this recording on endless repeat.

I first came to Mat Maneri’s musical concept listening to his triptych of records on Leo recordings: Fifty-One Sorrows (1999), Fever Bed (2000), and For Consequence (2003), and then his solo work on Trinity (ECM, 2001). (This is not even to mention his work with Matthew Shipp, or his HatHut recordings with his father, the late clarinetist/saxophonist Joe Maneri (though do check out Out Right Now (HatHut, 2001)  with Joe Maneri and Joe Morris on guitar), and Dahabenzapple (Hat Hut, 1996)with Joe Maneri, Cecil McBee on bass, and Randy Peterson.) I was and remain very taken by his singular expressiveness. Within a fairly tight aesthetic, Maneri opens up a way of allowing the viola to speak its sadness. In his interview with DJ Michael Schell (on KBCS (Bellevue College) from this past October), Maneri jokes that he’s the “Goth Jazz guy.” But then more seriously, “I’ve always loved the melancholy. It speaks to me.” It speaks to him and through him to us, the halting implication that we share the world’s mourning.

The tracks on Ash are all of a piece. Viola rasping over and against the subtle but still cleanly tonal piano, the slowly throbbing bass, Peterson’s emotive percussion—no time, all emphasis, unraveling lines.

Highlights from the record: The second track, “Dust to Dust,” captures a slow-motion mist, working it over 10 minutes. The liner notes read: “Dust to dust in which dust itself is a prerequisite for dust in which dust returns to dust and again . . . as if there is no end except in the coming back around of the end.” The cycle of eternal return. When Maneri drops off to let the piano-bass-drums trio do their thing, the effect is of a fog lifting. Ban plays lead and a mildly cheerful moodiness appears; Maneri returns and the tone is reset to the stoically tragic, face to face with the muted melancholy of our situation. On the third track, "Earth," Peterson’s drum solo closing it out slowly over the last two and a half minutes is a thing of beauty. The final track, “Cold World Lullaby” has an Eastern European flavor. Romanian, perhaps. Less Maneri’s concept, than his concept applied to an adjacent genre. It works.

I do wish John Hébert’s bass were better represented in its sonic detail. The quartet played Seattle as part of the Earshot Jazz festival in November, 2023. Brandon Lopez sat in for Hébert. In the new auditorium of Cornish College of the Arts, the sound was fantastic.

Available at Bandcamp digital or CD:


Steve Reynolds said...

The 2 recordings are nice. I’ve been fortunate to see the quartet 5 times. Once with Hébert pre-pandemic and 4 times this past summer/fall with the great Brandon Lopez who is now the bassist in the group. Second set at Jazz Gallery top 5 set of music I’ve witnessed in 2023.

I’ve been seeing Mat live for 25 years now starting with the Dahabenzapple Quartet in 1998 at Tonic in NYC. The 4 times seeing Papa Joe with a quartet with Mat & Randy changed my life. Randy Peterson remains the best “jazz” drummer live I know of. He can play one cymbal and express more swing than most drummers can on a full kit. This current quartet became very special by the end of its tour this last fall. Stunning.