AVANT   Spring 2000


Michael Mantler

The ECM package comprising Michael Mantler's Edition of Contemporary Music details fifteen album releases or re-releases spanning the years 1968 to 1999 and gives mention of a further eleven albums graced with is presence, mostly under Carla Bley's leadership. The list is not definitive - one notes the absence of Peter Blegvad's remarkable 1976 'Kew Rhone', and Nick Mason' (of Pink Floyd)'s 1981 'Fictitious Sports', for instance - but must be pretty exhaustive. The availability of such a collection indicates the esteem in which ECM holds Mantler, and offers comprehensive evidence of the broad definition of his unique contribution at the point where jazz interfaces with art music and rock. This article reviews Mike's career by way of some of these recordings.

Widely respected as he is among cognoscenti - his influence has spread subliminally beyond avant-garde jazz into European Progressive rock - Mantler's is unsurprisingly not a name familiar to jazz fans in general, given that he has not willingly associated himself with this music since the late 60s, Neither, on the other hand, is it well known in the worlds of classical or rock music. Where it has appeared has been largely in association with Carla Bley and most memorably in connection with their 1971 magnum opus 'Escalator Over The Hill', long touted as the first 'jazz opera' and the largest single work to appear in the 'jazz' genre, for whose music Ms. Bley was largely responsible. For a time, his involvements as composer, trumpet player co-ordinator, promoter and publicists - a white catalyst, along with Carla and Paul Bley and Roswell Rudd, among the leading lights of New York's black free jazz ferment in the mid-'sixties - was crucial in presenting a rare composition-centred focus in a collective milieu actively engaged in attempting to relocate cutting edge jazz at the forefront of the black community's struggle for self-emancipation.

Coming from Vienna, where he was born in 1943, with a convention-bound upbringing and qualification in trumpet and musicology from the city's Academy of Music and University, Michael was just nineteen when, driven by an urge to play the jazz he had awakened to on the US forces' European radio network, he upped stakes and moved to America to enroll at Boston's Berklee College. There he met our own Mike Gibbs, a further collaborant, picked his own path through various courses, and over the next two years networked his way through to leading figures of the new jazz in New York. In New York he became involved in the loose 'second generation' grouping of free jazz musicians, and met Carla Bley. With fear and hostility rife among venues, promoters and the older generation of musicians, the pressing need was to fight for security, income and outlets for the music.

By October 1964, trumpeter Bill Dixon was organizing free-blowing sessions at New York's Cellar Cafe under the heading 'The October Revolution in Jazz', bringing some forty groups into the gathering, including Paul Bley and Burton Greene, Sun Ra, and Carla and Mike. From these events Dixon, Mantler, Taylor, Rudd, Archie Shepp and John Tchicai formed the Jazz Composer's Guild, initially mounting four double-billed concerts at New York's Judson Hall, including one featuring the Jazz Composer's Guild Orchestra, led by Mantler and Bley. This was followed by weekly loft sessions upstairs from the famous Village Vanguard. Mike was soon working in Cecil Taylor's high-energy group.

But soon the by-now inwardly fractious Guild splintered. The Jazz Composer's Orchestra, as it was now called, led by Mantler and Carla Bley, performed at the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival, and their Jazz Realities Quintet, with Steve Lacy, Kent Carter and Aldo Romano, toured Europe that and the following year. A subsequent, particularly fraught version of this group included Peter Kowald and Peter Brötzmann. Subsequently, Mantler and Carla Bley formed the Jazz Composer's Orchestra Association (JCOA) as a non-profit foundation and promotional body for commissions, performances and recordings by themselves and others. The Jazz Composer's Orchestra, including key soloists Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah Sanders, Gato Barbieri, Larry Coryell, and Cecil Taylor, continued under Mantler's leadership as its performing outlet.

In what today would be described as its 'mission statement', the JCO included in its first album a promissory quotation from Samuel Beckett: "if it will kindly be considered that while it is in our interest as tormentors to remain where we are as victims our urge is to move on, and that of these two aspirations warring in each heart it would be normal for the latter to triumph if only narrowly"

The JCO's music transected categories of jazz, avant-garde classical and music theatre. Concerts comprised two hours' worth of volcanic orchestration by Mantler to frame, in the only seeming way possible, the pianist's hectic manner of improvising. Mantler was good at this sort of thing: his way of providing power-boosting, often pile-driven settings for high energy players like Taylor and Sanders would influence Alex Schlippenbach's Globe Unity and Barry Guy's London Jazz Composer's Orchestra. Owners of the JCO's contemporaneous eponymous silver-covered 1968 double album - re-included in the Edition (JCOA 1001/2) - treasure it particularly for Taylor's performance. At this time, the first intimations of Carla Bley's massive 'Escalator' were being sketched out. From here we move through involvement in Charlie Haden's first Liberation Music Orchestra in '69, to an identification with the seedy undertow of downtown America, beginning with Carla's tripped out musical scenario for 'Escalator'.

The musical partnership with Carla Bley, whom Michael had married, was cemented with the formation of the New Music Distribution Service as the part of JCOA providing distribution outlets for his own, Carla's and other independent producers in the nether-world of jazz, rock and classical music, including ICP, ECM, FMP and Incus. A year later, in 1973, Bley and Mantler formed WATT, a recording label dealing solely with their own projects, and in 1975 built their own recording studio at Woodstock, where they had settled, outside New York. A grant from the Ford Foundation Recording and Publishing Program secured the composition and recording of Mantler's '13', for two orchestras (one jazz, one classical) and piano, coupled with Carla's '3/4', on WATT/3.

WATT 2/5 are now coupled in a 2-CD set. By 1973, we are already deep in Samuel Beckett territory: Mantler used Jack Bruce, whose voice had been put to such telling effect in 'Escalator', to inject emotion into Beckett's cryptic 'No Answer' lines from 'How It Is'. Mantler has stated his preference for rock-type singers able to cope with the difficulties of his music. The message is bleak, as always it is with Beckett. There is little melody to speak of: the music is largely a somber kind of recitative, occasionally enlivened with rippling, quasi-minimalist over-dubbed piano from Bley, spicily pointed up by Cherry's brittle pocket trumpet. 'Silence' (1976), the other half of the package, a transcription from Harold Pinter's play of that name, has the voices of Robert Wyatt, Kevin Coyne and Carla Bley representing one female and two male characters who are haplessly denied intimacy by an inability or unwillingness to access accurately articulate or communicate their feelings, Their pithy utterances are complemented by a Satiean musical jigsaw of static elements. Like the vacuous dialogue, the music pertinently see-saws forth and back without sense of direction. At the conclusion, selected fragments are re-summoned as if to distill its essence of pervasive disjunction. Notwithstanding Bruce's valiance, my preference is for this half of the offering - despite my misgivings about the melodramatic quality of Coyne's voice - complementing as it does its companions greater austerity with sufficient jazz-rock buoyancy to make the interesting contrast a deserving slice for your money. Neither here nor on 'No Answer' do we hear Mantler's trumpet, but on the latter Chris Spedding's loose-limbed improvising reminds us of an original conceptualist lost to jazz.

The two volumes of 'Movies/More Movies' (WATT 7/10 - 1977 and 1980), now on one CD consist of sharply-characterised would-be film music adaptable for scenes of reflection, tension and poignancy, motivic repetition used, often viciously, to drive a point home. Of the two, the first is the more stark, bringing together with dramatic effect Larry Coryell's howling, clanking, splintered guitar effects and Tony Williams' volcanic drumming, framed by Carla's hard-edged organ backdrop, and (rarely on record) Mantler's tellingly economical Cherry-derived trumpet. The second is more affably disposed, with greater variety, including a funky Mike Gibbs soundalike (Track 12), and good jazz guitar from Philip Catherine.

From this point on through Mantler's oeuvre, an underlying bleakness tends increasingly to get the upper hand. Suffocating oppressiveness could best describe both the 1982 piece 'Something There' (WATT/13), which has Mike Stern and Nick Mason in the group and the strings of the LSO, arranged by Mike Gibbs - best summed up in Beckett's poem, printed on the jacket alongside a strangely illuminated photograph of a gleaming monolithic new office block dominating foreground images of demolished buildings and massive rubble - and the 1985 trumpet/synths duo album 'Alien' (WATT/15), with Don Preston, both evincing advances in refinement in Mantler's rich harmonic language of overburdened tonality and unnervingly idiosyncratic way of blending timbres.

In the above works, improvisation is noticeably on the retreat, subservient by necessity to finessed detail. In 1991, Mantler emigrated to Denmark, and broke his links with WATT. He now has his Chamber Music and Songs ensemble - a grouping of his trumpet, the guitar of Bjarne Roupé and string quartet, framing the chill voice of Mona Larsen, heard on the first part of 'Songs and One Symphony' (ECM) in four settings of almost suicidal pessimism by poet Ernst Meister.

It is difficult to know what to make of the scrupulously crafted four-movement symphony. Mantler could best be described as an epigrammatic monumentalist: his harmonic language, unlike that of the later Weimar Kurt Weill (viz. the Second Symphony), neither inspires nor permits of extended discourse. What disturbs is what remains in it of gestures and implied movements from a dynamic past that sought wider connections with a progressive historicism now implicitly dead.

The scientific optimism implicit in the Beethovian symphonic tradition's arching tonal schemas reaching towards a happy tonic-and-dominant conclusion slowly gave way through the nineteenth century before poverty, urban squalor, industrial waste and exploitation. Freud's ultimately pessimistic accounting for human selfishness, and Darwin's justificatory theory of evolution and the struggle for survival found expression in the great Austro-German tradition's essential concentration in Schoenberg's subjectivist aesthetic, of which Mantler, like his nearest forbear Kurt Weill, might be considered more socially-committed beneficiaries. Atonality no longer permitted the unequivocal affirmation, even by way of tortuous Mahlerian voyages of the soul, of the homing instinct-implied ideal of predestined key, and mathematics eventually would come to modernism's rescue. The inner-consistency of Mantler's distinctiveness resides in its poignant inability to find proper closure. It gets consistently side-tracked, irresolution snagged up in the final outcome. Such chromatic overload affords a greater richness of possibilities, true, but when reached, the goal seems as banal as life lived. Like history repeating, then backing itself crouched into a corner, that goal itself becomes increasingly elusive the further one progresses through Mantler's oeuvre.

There are probably millions of lonely western souls out there who can identify with this stuff. The music addresses itself to the chasmic void that opens when the cover, the compulsive drivenness and tail-chasing for ephemera that, for business and its advertising usefully keeps people uselessly obsesses with acquiring and 'keeping up' in order to feel part of the human race, constituting for most of the main point of it all, is blown in all its hollowness and denial. Mantler abjures the false jollification of life without ultimate meaning of linkeage represented in the music of some minimalists, whose machine-like rhythms his at times resembles. The alternative appears to be exclusion, when emptiness at the end of the search is not the fullness of the senses but exhaustion. Listened to in concentrated form (i.e. for reviewing purposes), this journey through one man's soul would have a devastating effect on the recipient, were it not in the knowledge that alternative visions, by no means lacking in gravitas, but also non-mordant humour, are available.

It is sad, beautiful shining trumpeter that he is, Mantler misses out on the joy that is the lifespring of wellbeing on which jazz musicians draw. Creative fatalism in the face of what seems foregone is one impossible outcome of Beckettian isolation, silence gutted of meaning and even self-inflicted annihilation; but intelligence was encoded into the genetic inheritance, and is still there for the taking. Like spring, of which e e cummings wrote a poem, nobody in the end can stop it, not all the policemen (and businesspersons and politicians) in the world.

- John Wickes


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