The first anthology of the work of Michael Mantler, “Review” features material chosen by the trumpeter/composer, and draws upon more than 30 years of recordings for JCOA, WATT and ECM. It is a powerful album, which traces a unique musical path.
After studying trumpet and musicology in Vienna, Michael Mantler (born 1943) moved to Boston in 1962 to continue his education at the Berklee School. Within two years he was living in New York, playing with Cecil Taylor, and at the heart of new jazz activities. With Taylor, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Sun Ra, Paul Bley, John Tchicai and others he was a member of the Jazz Composer’s Guild, and beneath its umbrella founded, with Carla Bley, the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, the first large ensemble of its kind. At 25, Mantler wrote extraordinary orchestral frames, “to complement, surround, and inspire (but not to control or restrict) some of the truly great and original improvisers of free jazz”. On “Preview”, from 1968, we hear Pharoah Sanders soloing explosively in what is certainly one of his most astonishing performances on record.
With the founding of the WATT label Mantler began bringing non-‘jazz’ voices into his work, alongside the jazz improvisers, and also initiated his series of literary settings. Rock singer Jack Bruce conveys the words of Samuel Beckett, and Don Cherry plays the trumpet, on “Number Six” from “No Answer”, recorded 1973 (based on Beckett’s “How It Is”).
Mantler’s “13” (recorded 1975) featured “further elaboration on composition for large orchestra”, with “some freedom of interpretation, but no improvisation. The orchestra is the soloist.” The excerpt from “13” marks the first time this music has appeared on CD.
“The Sinking Spell” is from Mantler’s much-loved album “The Hapless Child” (recorded1975/6) where the humorously dark stories of Edward Gorey seem ideally suited to singer Robert Wyatt’s deadpan delivery. And what a band, with Jack DeJohnette, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, and Terje Rypdal. A ‘timeless’ performance, “The Sinking Spell” would work as a single today, thirty years after it was recorded.
Wyatt appears again as one of a strange trio of voices – with Carla Bley and Kevin Coyne – on “Sometimes I See People”, with words taken from Harold Pinter’s play “Silence” (1976). Jack Bruce later sung “When I Run” from the “Silence” pieces, in the concert interpretations heard on “Live” (1987).
“Movies” (1977) was Mantler’s reckoning with the language of jazz-rock, its exuberance controlled and focused by the fine, taut compositions – and by the superb drums of Tony Williams. The small group context proves a stimulating one for Mantler as trumpeter, too, and for guitarist Larry Coryell.
Mike Stern was guitarist with Miles Davis’s band when he collaborated with Mantler on “Something There” in 1982, which also featured the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Mike Gibbs, and the Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason on drums. One of the largest casts on a Mantler disc was followed by the smallest, the “Alien” duo, with ex-Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston (1985) making resourceful use of synthesizers.
“Many Have No Speech” (1987), the last of Mantler’s WATT albums, intensified the work with text (Meister, Soupault, Beckett) and language (German, French, English) and added a third striking voice to those of Jack Bruce and Robert Wyatt: the voice of Marianne Faithfull. Three pieces from the recording are included – “PSS”, an excerpt from “Comrade” and “A L’Abbattoir” – with each of the singers.
“Folly Seeing All This” (1992) – the first of Mantler’s ECM disc, “exploring the string quartet, eventually enlarging it to what will become the basic instrumentation for most future productions from now on: the Chamber Music and Songs Ensemble”. The new unit, based – as Mantler now was, in Copenhagen – was featured on “Songs and One Symphony” (the “Songs” section recorded in 1993) and introduced the powerful voice of Mona Larsen, and the guitar of Bjarne Roupé.
In 1994, the versatile Larsen tackled Giuseppe Ungaretti’s poetry, in the original Italian, on “Cerco Un Paese Innocente”, in the company of the Danish Radio Big Band, and was one of
many strong voices featured on “The School of Understanding “(1996), described by Mantler as “Sort-of-an-opera” and unique amongst his compositions inasmuch as he is the author of the libretto as well as the music.
Improvisation, at a premium in Mantler’s works through the 1990s, was banished altogether from “One Symphony” (1998) on which Peter Rundel sensitively conducted The Radio Symphony Orchestra Frankfurt.
On “Hide and Seek” (2000), Mantler adapted a short play by Paul Auster, with the author’s approval and encouragement. Robert Wyatt sings once more, in conversational exchanges with Susi Hyldgaard which are linked by instrumental pieces.
After a lengthy absence from the world’s stages – and almost five years of playing no trumpet at all – Michael Mantler recently returned to live performance with the Chamber Music and Songs Ensemble in three days of concerts in his hometown of Vienna, an event closely monitored by Austrian television, radio and press.
The lesson learned from the concerts is one that the “Review” anthology underlines: this is music built to last, capable of addressing, most eloquently, a new generation of listeners...