Striking a curious balance between the accessible and the abstruse, violinist/violist Mat Maneri's latest release is a study in contrast. Ranging from abstract free improvisation to off-kilter orchestral beauty, Pentagon is a fair summation of Maneri's career to datethough he's still in only his mid-thirties.
Considering Maneri began playing with his father, microtonal explorer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Maneri, at the age of seven, consolidating thirty years of experience becomes less strange. But what he does here is tie together his vast experiences on the outer edges of improvised music into an hour-long suite where each piece flows into the next, sometimes seamlessly, other times more jarringly.
With a core group featuring trombonist Ben Gerstein alongside keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Tom Raineywho share an immediate chemistry through their longstanding collaborations with renegade saxophonist Tim BerneManeri has both texture and free thinking at his disposal. "W.W.P. is a free blowing affair with all manner of electronic manipulation expanding the landscape of organized chaos: proof positive that free improvisation should be about collective listening, reaction, and response, as opposed to solitary musings. The equally free "Irenam is darker, with Maneri's instrument so altered as to be nearly unrecognizable, while "Wound evokes a spacious and restrained sense of anarchy with its contained maelstrom of sounds driven by Maneri's wavering viola.
Elsewhere Maneri aims for deeper beauty. ."ava and "America bookend the disc with a transformed kind of beauty, pairing Maneri's "real strings with Jamie Saft's mellotron. On the latter, Maneri references "America the Beautiful, but amidst the grandeur is discord, politicizing the piece without uttering a word. Saft and Maneri also collaborate on the equally lush "Third HandThe Fallen, where the shifting pitch of the mellotron creates an unsettled feeling, and T.K. Ramakrishnan's mridungum (Indian two-sided hand drum) flitters throughout, acting as a thematic link to the more freely-improvised "Witches Woo.
Structured rhythms are hard to find, because Rainey's playing is more color and texture than pulse. Still, "Inslut revolves around a hip-hop-style drum program and turntable scratching, although Taborn's jagged Fender Rhodes keeps things angular throughout. "Howl in My Head/Motherless Child also features a more defined rhythm, with some surprisingly in-the-pocket alto playing from Joe Maneri, before segueing into a truly skewed rhythm track for Sonja Maneri's outré vocal rendition.
What makes Pentagon so successful is its continuity, the way it links sometimes disparate thoughts in surprising ways. The title trackfeaturing mridungum, mellotron, and Joe Maneri's disconcerting vocalizingsegues into the cacophony of the appropriately titled "War Room, with Joe Maneri saying "I don't know, it just sounds crazy! "War Room is the album's most extreme track, cinematographically building things to a climax, with the softer coda of "America bringing things to a gentler, albeit still ambiguous, close, as well as a full-circle return to the disc's equally orchestral yet subtly off-balance beginning.
As much emotionally cathartic experience as captivating listen, Pentagon proves the true power of music as a provocative instrument of expression and ideation.
Track Listing: .ava; W.W.P.; Inslut; Irenam; Third Hand--The Fallen; Witches Woo; Wound; Howl in My Head/Motherless Child; An Angel Passes By; Pentagon; War Room; America.
Personnel: Mat Maneri: viola, violin; Craig Taborn: laptop, fender rhodes; Tom Rainey: drums; Ben Gerstein: trombone; Sonja Maneri: vocals; T.K. Ramakrishnan: mridungum; John Hebert: bass; John McLellan: drums; Jamie Saft: mellotron; Joe Maneri: keyboards, alto saxophone, voice.