Perfect Sound Forever


Photo by Gorm Valentin, © ECM Records

1974 - 1988:
The Hapless Composer
By Mark S. Tucker
(September 2005)

There aren't many true iconoclasts left in music now that hyper-"capitalism" has managed to either co-opt, break, starve, or corrupt most everyone who can bang away at an instrument or hold a mikestand, but Michael Mantler's been one of those impervious to the infection and has remained steadfast to a unique style of music-making. To describe his approach, however, is difficult, as it's fusionily, cabaretically, cinematically, and novo-jazzily un-pigeon-holeable, to string together odd adjectivalized adverbs. However, stick it in fusion and no one will much complain.

Mantler was a major presence in Carla Bley's 1972 monumental and ever-impressive Escalator Over the Hill, a unique 3-LP work begging for continual re-pressing. He produced the mammoth opera, also playing trumpet, trombone, keyboards, and percussion. The set featured an unbelievably distinguished prolific gathering of major talent from jazz and rock realms (John McLaughlin, Jack Bruce, Gato Barbieri, Enrico Rava, and Linda Ronstadt, amongst many) and would be one of the too few times we'd be able to hear Mantler play in the first half of his catalogue.

After that striking singularity, he started a solo gig, mostly writing, seeing that the compositions were carried out by hand-picked ensembles, later taking up his trumpet and joining in. With attention riveted upon crafting fantasias on others' librettos, it was Mantler's composing skill which attracted some of the most unusual rock and jazz virtuosos in the western world, people who were not just the typical well-known overachievers but unusually distinctive artistic personalities in and of themselves. No Answer (1974) is an interesting starting point, an outing where he roped in a trio: Jack Bruce (Cream) on bass and vocals, Carla Bley on piano, and Don Cherry on trumpet. Bley dominated through necessity, but Bruce's angelically lyrical voice lofted above her, adding considerable dimension. Mantler had indited a love for Samuel Beckett‘s work, with all its neuroses, aberrations, and multiple poetic licenses, and Bruce interpreted the gloomy consciousness ably, pulling out bleaknesses amply inherent in text and subtext. The LP was sparse but immediate and affective, a small anthology of droning bleak houses and semi-mannered Edwardian monsters, narrated by mephitically resonant interlocutors.

In The Hapless Child (1976), Mantler's fourth release, one of the most interesting monotones around, Robert Wyatt, and the idiosyncratic Nordic guitarist Terje Rypdal, were recruited. The text was written by Edward Gorey - or rather, Mantler adapted Gorey's pre-existing writings and set them to music. From the very start, what would repeat throughout this entire preliminary history is well understood here: to Mantler, music was a ceaselessly restless ocean of unresolved advances and retreats colored by bizarre and engaging drop-ins. Naturally, while flanked by Jack DeJohnette, Carla Bley, and Steve Swallow, Rypdal supplied the majority of lead lines in his famously inimitable style, an approach to the guitar that only Bill Frisell, Robert Fripp, Franco Falsini, and a few other axe-wielders have ever taken. Wyatt spouted the lyrics in his distinctive falsetto, droll and austere, mirthful in Gorey's grim portentous fashion (chiefly due to the writer's soggily British morbidity and waggish disposition), so that one is reminded of Wyatt's own solo works and predecessor bands (Hatfield and the North, Soft Machine). Mantler's music was the closest thing one could get to psychedelic without actually embracing the standard devices. Eschewing, for the most part, all the electronic adjuncts, he remained warped, anxious, expansive, and distorted. The attentive will note that Pink Floyd's Nick Mason also has a small side role as a narrator here. We'll see him again later.

As if that weren't enough, the next time around, in Silence (1976), Mantler hung onto Wyatt and paired him with Kevin Coyne, one of the single most eccentric musicians ever spawned by England, a land not short on fiercely individualistic characters, and a gent who, while working in mental asylums, managed to put the shudder back into delerium-inducing insights, cutting hamstrings within both folk and rock to deliver his sermons, capering solo or in ensemble in a forgotten rock group (Siren). The work's adapted from Harold Pinter's play and thirds out Carla Bley, who ordinarily doesn't sing, being a dedicated pianist, as seen earlier, yet who emits a fetchingly lullabyish voice somewhat between early and late Marianne Faithfull, in a zone Faithfull herself might have inhabited had she not gone straight from innocent waif to world-weary Weimar croaker (and we shall acquaint ourselves with Mr. Jagger's notorious used-to-be a little later in Mantler's history). Bley's the bedrock for the ensemble, this time assisted by Chris Spedding, replacing Rypdal and playing in an uncharacteristically slidey style, illustrating why he was one of England's top sessioneers. Silence seems a follow-on to Hapless but that's due to the omnipresence of Mantler's sustainingly episodic forte, a mode he tended to perpetually dwell in during this period, aesthetically much like Philip Glass with his continually transmorphing repetitions.

Movies (1978) sees the composer finally dragging out his trumpet again, with Larry Coryell on guitars and Tony Williams on percussion, Bley and Swallow the mainstays. Coryell, presently the most neglected first-water guitarist in the world, conducts himself with an unusually liquid hand as well, getting in machine-gun riffs when he can but following Mantler's script for the lion's share. The LP cover is annoying: a B&W photo on aluminum foil, glaring and inartistically callow, offensive. His trumpet-playing, on the other hand, is striking, almost a nexus between Maynard Ferguson, Kenny Wheeler, and Herb Alpert - like the music itself, a hybrid. Overall, the score has a Nyman-ish feel to it, crossing between that neoclassical composer's two loves: minimal serialism and cinethematics. As before, this album, too, despite a clearer linear progression, has no resolution, being a set of observances.

1983's Something There augmented Mantler's style handsomely, using the London Symphony Orchestra's strings while also employing either some of their brass players in a separated role or the composer was using a splitter to fractionate his own trumpet, providing faux ensemble effects; probably the latter. The classical element is conducted by Michael Gibb and provides a fundament for the six movement LP, circling Beckett's short poem of the same name. The stellar sit-ins this time are Mike Stern (Miles Davis) and Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), with Stern often non-complimentarily restrained, seemingly to fit in with earlier Spedding and Rypdal shadings. Mantler gives him a number of occasions to rip but the guitarist is still somewhat complacent, an attitude hard to square. The orchestra's the true main player this time around, adding huge dimensions to the normally barren-ish Mantler milieu. It stretches out his atmospheres so that the listener finally gets the sense of completion, closure, of the whole work going somewhere - an indefinable somewhere, true, but certainly not remaining in the fascinating mode of circularity and revisitations so prevalent in the past. Gibbs finds a good deal more emotion in the score than would be expected, gracing Something with unusual vivacity.

After all that, the prospect of a duet would seem to be defeatist, anti-climactic, yet, in having chosen Don Preston (a Zappa mainstay) for such a pairing, Mantler had found a marvelous way to denouement down from the gigantic alliance with the Symphony. In Alien (1985), Preston's synths are warm, abstract, and unsually evocative, drawing from the trumpeter the most sensual performance of this era in his career. That top-dwelling axe is extremely Wheeler-esque here, sensitive and soft, laden with lament but pulsing with blood, thinking while wandering the world with open eyes and a wounded heart. Without a text to sit upon, the composer had to bare himself and the result stands high in his long record. Equal credit must be given to Preston, who chameleonically takes the part of all Mantler's old standbys. Solo, he fills out a baseline normally supplied by four. The too-often repellent presence of syndrums, prevalent in so many of the barren sub-genres of modern electro-musics, are surprisingly well thought out, much more so than the diodic shallows usual to such imposture. In this, one begins to understand what had been hidden by the sprawling riots in Zappa's bands: Frank, as usual, saw deeply into Preston's talents when singling him out for the longest tenure any musician had in that infamous cabaret of genius. How fitting that Mantler, then, a misfit himself, should see this as well.

Now, through all that, what was missing? A live LP, of course. Thus, 1987 saw Live, with yet another staggering line up: Bruce, Preston, Mason, Rick Fenn (10CC), and John Greaves (Henry Cow). Weirdly, Bruce didn't play bass at any point, just sang and left the fat frets to Greaves. No loss, Jack's pipes were in as fine a fettle as ever they would be (one day, someone's going to look back and see that he's been rock's Richard Burton). All cuts are reprises from earlier releases and conducted with intimacy: the gentlemen knew what they were in for and tackled the gig with a loving curl of the cynically proper lip, erudite and elevated. Preston once again fufilled an infinitely valuable function, backgrounding everyone; there was, as always, no real rhthym section. In parts, Greaves played piano perfectly off Preston's synths and the LP contained two high points: “The Remembered Visit", which benefitted from soulful intensity, and “The Doubtful Guest", which, believe it or not, rocked its ass off, with Mantler's trumpet becoming the central motive.

Then Marianne Faithfull joined Wyatt and Bruce on Many Have No Speech (1988), with Rick Fenn and the Danish Radio Concert Orchestra (conducted by Peter Kragerup), an ensemble even more sympathetic to Mantler's score than the LSO had been. The Danish ensemble's rapport is, in fact, breathtaking, crossing a high borderground between classicalism and dizzyingly elevated rock, abetted by Fenn's vaulting guitar. With Nico no longer amongst the living, Faithfull seemed the obvious choice for Mantler's dark dramas, what with her whiskeyed-out, far-too-worldly, streetwise-adolescent tones, but, sorry to say, she's curiously flat and uninflected, lacking the emotional depth of some of her solo work (a small spotty catalogue festooned with losers and interesting side-pockets but certainly nothing to have suggested this assignment). The CD's short, highly segmented (27 sections), a potpourri of text-bases, and suffers only in Faithfull's dishpan reading. The performance, though not stated so, is obviously live (perhaps with no audience) and, in the final analysis, a type of peripheral thievery: all that prep, practice, planning, and performance, and yet the yield is only a little over half an hour??? Yep, we wuz robbed. With a CD's capacity of 80 minutes and the gathering of such a luminescent crew, no more could be wrought? What had happened? No answer was forthcoming. Still, one can't much outright complain, Speech is too satisfying for that, so the listener contents himself to grumble and then sit back happily into what's offered, which is sublime.

It appears Mantler understood that he was meant to blend his use of the “groundling" (rock, jazz) with the ineffable (classical, prog) to ratchet up the levels in music. His releases after this long period would all feature at least small chamber ensembles blent with rockers, avant-gardists, classicalists, and jazzheads. Moreover, we can thank our blessed stars that he may be the only person on planet Earth to understand Jack Bruce's vocal genius and grace... as rock labels continue to lash the beleaguered bassist to endless regurgitations of “Sunshine of Your Love" or pedestrian faux-underground masturbation sessions like The Golden Palominos. What can one say? It's business, right? Nonetheless, Michael Mantler has been criminally ignored in the States, where only one of his many releases, early and recent, is maintained for availability in the pristine ECM catalogue, Europe being a far more fertile acceptance point. Be that as it may, it would perhaps form an ironic text for a future release, this grim disparity between the self-adulatory American proclivity for aggrandizement of its own reputed sophistications as contrasted against actual consumption habits. On the other hand, we now have a monkey in the Oval Office, so can anyone be much surprised as to what Uncle Sam's modern progeny give the nod to? Maybe Mantler can be persuaded to guest Toby Keith on his next outing and sell a million copies to a slavering gaggle of Yank boneheads. Weirder things have happened.

As to the state of his post-1988 work, that will have to be left for another time. Suffice it to say that it appears to transcend this epochal first period and that an analysis may later be forthcoming.

Also see the Michael Mantler interview

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