Clarinettist, saxophonist and pianist, improvisor and composer, conservatory professor and microtonal theorist, Joseph Gabriel Maneri, 71, has been playing music with his violinist son Matthew for 22 years - since Mat was seven years old. Mat Maneri grew up steeped in his father's unique music, taking on trust a sound-world in which 72 tones to the octave was the norm. The younger Maneri played microtonally from the outset : as he says, "the microtones are ingrained" when he and his father make music together.
Jazz has had its share of interesting father and son teams - Ornette and Denardo Coleman, Von and Chico Freeman, Jackie and René McLean, Duke and Mercer Ellington, Stan and Clark Tracey, Dewey and Joshua Redman, Charles and Charnett and Cody Moffett, an entire family of Brubecks - but there can be few instances of so close a musical understanding, so refined a shared musical language, as exists between the Maneris. Blessed, recorded in October 1997, is their first duo album per se, but all the music they have made to date has had the duo at its centre. It is the ur-group, as it were. In truth, Joe and Mat Maneri play so tightly together that it is difficult for other musicians to enter their universe.
Microtones, of course, have been part of jazz from before its beginning, the bent notes of the blues belonging to the essential fabric of the music. With the Maneris, the point is the fluidity and control of their microtonal grammar; their highly evolved system is a means of music making, but never the subject of their work. Paul Bley observed recently, that "saxophone-play has always embraced microtones - the blue notes of Charlie Parker, whole passages by Ornette Coleman without a definite key centre. Like irrational phrases that serve to wipe the slate clean after all these fixed tones. But Joe Maneri has really worked out all of that aspect. He's a genius who has crossed that line. His music is up to 100% non-tempered with all these tiny steps between the 12 tones. This last step to freedom is very radical, as radical as when the drummers of the 1960s gave up playing the rhythm and the beat". Radical though this is for jazz, Maneri's innovations should also be viewed in the context of the 20th century composition that has inspired him, and in contemporary music there is a vast and diverse - if still vastly underrated - microtonal tradition. Joe Maneri was first impressed by the 72 note music of Czech composer Alois Haba. In the 1920s, when Haba was premiering his early microtonal pieces in Donaueschingen, Charles Ives, in Connecticut, was writing "It will probably be generations before man will discover all or even most of the value in a quarter-tone extension. And when he does nature has plenty of other things up her sleeve...Transcendent things may be felt ahead, glimpses into further fields of thought and beauty." In Mexico at the same time, Julián Carrillo was already dividing the octave into 15, 16, 53 and 72 equal parts. Harry Partch's 43 note scale was on the horizon, and soon dozens more composers would be exploring "non-12 tunings". As president of the Boston Microtonal Society, Joe Maneri continues to survey new developments in the field and still he is wary of being categorized as "merely" a microtonalist. "If I play a thousand microtones, what's that worth if the rhythm isn't happening' In some ways the rhythm is the most vital part of what we're doing."
Mat Maneri has said in interview that he views all of his work with his father as a kind of chamber music undertaking. Joe Maneri sometimes sees the music as nothing but jazz, tying up some loose ends that Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker didn't get around to resolving. (Although Joe has played with diverse architects of new jazz from Paul Bley to Cecil Taylor and traded ideas with Sun Ra, his jazz points of reference are most often the great hornmen of the 40s and 50s; Ellington is another permanent touchstone).
In fact each recording project is differently-placed along the jazz-new music continuum. Last year's Maneri Quartet album was definitely "jazz"; with the drums and bass removed on Blessed, "chamber" elements come naturally to the fore. The "Five Fantasies" take their cue from Webern's bagatelles. Schoenberg is also a reference here. On the other hand, the traditional "Never Said A Mumblin' Word", with Joe's powerful piano, is very much in the gospelized tradition of the Maneris' take on "Motherless Child" (see In Full Cry and Selected Signs), Mat's solo acoustic violin rendition of "Body And Soul" takes the hoary standard to some new place, and the solo clarinet "Gardenias For Gardenis" is Joe's dedication to Charly Gardenis, "the Bird of the Greek clarinet" in whose band Maneri Sr played in the 1950s. Between the two of them, father and son Maneri cover a lot of ground.
Mat Maneri also expands his already remarkable instrumental palette on Blessed. In addition to the sounds of his customized electric 6-string violin, he is heard here on the 5-string electric viola and - a particularly awesome beast - the electric baritone violin, which has strings like steel cables on it and gives the younger Maneri access to the bottom end of the string orchestra. It can be heard on "Sixty-One Joys".
Since Three Men Walking was released to a chorus of critical acclaim in 1996, other record labels have been stepping forward with Joe Maneri archive material. There is quite a lot of it (as one would expect of an artist who didn't begin to issue albums until he was almost 70!) and all of it deserves to be heard. Joe's new music however will continue to appear on ECM. Already in preparation is a trio album with Joe and Mat plus bassist Barre Phillips.