In what seems like a summer of death, bracketed by homicide taking Michael Jackson and cancer killing Ted Kennedy and with Les Paul and Rashied Ali among the noted musicians passing, the loss of Joe Maneri has been overshadowed, unobserved by the mainstream. But for fans of avant-garde jazz, his death is a grievous loss and the termination of one of the most heartwarming stories in the annals of jazz. A virtuoso clarinetist and saxophonist with an acute ear for improvisation, Maneri saw his playing and composing career stall in the early Sixties, and instead became a professor at the New England Conservatory, noted for his encyclopedic knowledge of microtonal music.
He wrote a respected textbook, founded the Boston Mictrotonal Society, and invented a microtonal keyboard. Then, at age 67, he finally got the break he should have had over thirty years before. Born February 9, 1927 in Brooklyn, NY, to Sicilian immigrants, Maneri quit school at age 15 to play music professionally. Gigging musicians get lots of wedding jobs (Jewish, Greek, and various Balkan ethnicities) and bar mitzvahs, but unlike most jazz musicians of the time, he eventually absorbed that experience into his musical persona. He was also studying modern classical music with a Schoenberg pupil, and in the 1940s he got together with a small group of like-minded musicians to experiment with free improvisation and 12-tone music. He learned of microtonal music through the music of Czech composer Alois Haba.
While Erich Leinsdorf's commission of a piano concerto for the Boston Symphony Orchestra came to naught when they couldn't handle its complexities, three of Maneri's classical compositions were performed at Carnegie Recital Hall to favorable reviews in 1961. In '63, Third Stream conceptualist Gunther Schuller hired Maneri to play tenor saxophone on a piece by David Reck, which led to Schuller pushing Atlantic Records to sign Maneri. We can hear what Atlantic passed up; Maneri's quartet's demo was issued 35 years later on a John Zorn-curated label. Seven of the eight tracks on Paniots Nine (Avant, 1998) are from that 1963 tape (along with one 1981 track). This material lays bare the Greek and klezmer influences in Maneri's style, showing his quartet melding their eccentric meters into a sort of free jazz style. A 1964 sax improvisation in duo with drummer Peter Dolger, a single 24-minute track that's much more freeform than the demo tracks, was eventually issued in 2008 in Atavistic's Unheard Music series as Peace Concert. Had this spare, microtonally inflected piece been issued in '64, minds would have been blown.
In 1970 Schuller hired Maneri to teach composition at the New England Conservatory, and Maneri moved to the Boston area and settled into the academic life. He played only rarely in public until his violinist son Mat and some other area musicians and students of Joe's prodded him into greater activity. Kalavinka (Cochlea), a trio with Mat and bassist Masashi Harada, came out in 1989 but had extremely limited distribution. As a result, when the English label Leo put out Get Ready to Receive Yourself in 1995, it was perceived as his debut. He was 67 years old.
The music on Get Ready to Receive Yourself (recorded in 1993, when Mat built up quite a cache of studio and concert material as he worked tirelessly to get Joe his due) is as challenging as the most "outside" free jazz but generally subdued, which allows better appreciation of Maneri's fine gradations of tone quality. All the compositions are group improvisations except for "Body and Soul," which is given a deeply felt reading. Bassist John Lockwood and drummer Randy Peterson provide sensitive accompaniment. It was the most attention-grabbing jazz release of the year, not least because of its back story. It's very rare that the cognoscenti get to hear a great new album by an unknown 67-year-old, yet here was one that clearly announced that yes, one of the greatest players ever had really traveled under our radar that long. Maneri finally began to receive the acclaim his truly unique talent merited.
Follow-up releases quickly followed. Though it's a concert recording (from 1993), Dahabenzapple (hatART, 1996) displays a very special intimacy over the course of its three 20-minute-plus improvisations, with Maneri putting so much into each note that a single phrase can carry as much meaning as an entire piece in mainstream jazz. Cecil McBee replaces Lockwood here, and Maneri plays a bit of piano, quite distinctively. Let the Horse Go (Leo, 1996) has Mat Maneri, Lockwood, and Peterson, and is even freer and more adventurous than the first Leo CD. The elder Maneri displays a broad range of intonational inflection and microtonal tuning, endowing every note with special feeling. Even the loud moments of full-blast intensity have a lean spareness, with a great deal of space around them, and the predominant quieter moments are somewhat reminiscent of Jimmy Giuffre, if built from different materials and approaches. There are so many subtle touches that superficial listening just won't do, but deep concentration is always rewarded by this seemingly abstract yet highly emotional music. ECM got into the act with Three Men Walking (ECM, 1996), with Joe and Mat joined by guitarist Joe Morris in a very freeform, spontaneous set.
HatART continued issuing 1993 quartet material recorded by Mat -- Coming Down the Mountain (1997) and Tenderly (1999) -- and in 2001 dipped into a '95 session from around the same time as Three Men Walking, with the same trio, for Out Right Now. But it was ECM that released the majority of his new material for the rest of his life. In Full Cry (ECM, 1997), with the Maneris plus Lockwood and Peterson, is valuable not only for the expected high quality of the performances, but for what's being performed: mixed in with the original group improvisations are "Tenderly," "Nobody Knows," "Motherless Child," and "Prelude to a Kiss," and hearing the players lovingly break down these standards and reassemble them is fascinating and moving. Unfortunately, ECM didn't put it out in the U.S. at the time; Maneri's style of jazz was more popular in Europe. Nor did his other ECM albums always appear promptly here, if at all: Blessed (1998), a duo with Mat; Tales of Rohnlief (1999), with Mat and bassist Barre Phillips; and the same trio's elegiac suite Angles of Repose (2004). It certainly wasn't for lack of musical excellence.
Filling out his discography as a leader are The Trio Concerts (Leo, 2001), with 1997-98 material by the Maneris and Peterson, and the wonderfully colorful and thoroughly thrilling Going to Church (AUM Fidelity, 2002), 2000 recordings credited to the Maneri Ensemble: Joe and Mat, Phillips, and Peterson, plus pianist Matthew Shipp and trumpeter Roy Campbell.
In his later years, Joe Maneri took on the aspect of an avant-jazz Santa, his rotund frame topped by a full white beard. His concerts were simultaneously sacred rituals for free-jazz believers (complete with vocalizations in an invented language) and casually friendly, intimate get-togethers. In one of the most improbable career paths the music biz has ever produced -- no albums for his first six decades, then 14 masterpieces in a decade-and-a-half (plus the two archival releases) -- this Santa gave us one of the most distinctively original and compact bodies of creative music in jazz history. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.