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Manuel Mengis: Freedom First, History Later

By Published: November 24, 2008
Taking time and encouraging organic development from other band members is a feature of Mengis' writing, as is using the full potential of different voicings in a sextet. He acknowledges that his group possesses a distinct trace of rock influence: "The rhythm section is kind of rock, maybe because that's the kind of music going on right now and I like a lot of rock music too. On the other hand, there are three horns, which I like because there are a lot of possibilities. You can play out harmonies just using the horns, but six people takes a lot of organization. You need to have a good idea of what you want in the end, for example being free. I like that complexity of making music with six people. Also, importantly, I didn't choose people who are involved in the same kind of music. The bassist is from the dub side of things, the saxophones from the jazz side. I like combining different tastes and personalities. With six people, you can achieve a good amount of power as well, which makes it interesting. You have all the possibilities: a huge sound, a tiny sound, two groups playing against each other."

It sounds complicated, both on disc and in the words of the architect. However, Mengis insists that simplicity is at the root of his compositional philosophy. On the question of how he would describe his music to someone who has never heard it, Mengis talks about how "the center is always some kind of theme which is not too complicated, which you can almost sing." But it's more than just theme and variation. "I try to change it—to put it into different colors and rearrange it. I like the metamorphosis of one thing. I try to make counterpoints, to build around it. A lot of parts are written and I like to interchange with more free parts; maybe sometimes it's hard to tell where they end and begin if you don't know.

The convoluted side lies in how he twists and turns his ideas, viewing and presenting them from a variety of angles. Many of the tunes possess an element of classical complexity—they are structured in movements, sometimes subtly connected and phasing gradually in and out, but often with clearer lines drawn. "For me the music is like a picture or a story. It's not in a specific jazz vocabulary and I like a lot of different atmospheres—maybe one of the most important things is changing the atmosphere and the structure. If I was selling it in a store, I would have a lot of problems putting it in a certain category because it has a little bit of many different influences and sounds."

It's easy to see why it takes Mengis such a long time to develop finished pieces. But, while the thick streak of rampant unpredictability is a highly enjoyable feature of his music, a shadowy guiding hand becomes increasingly visible on every listen. "I like surprising people, changing many times even within one tune, but I still think there is a red line underneath. It's not just a change—it may be a part of what was there already, but maybe you did not notice it, and then it comes again but more obvious, or at a different speed or with a different surrounding. I like to play with that. I don't want to go from A to B to C. I like to go from A to D and back to A, and then to Y, and then to A on the head. It's more interesting for the writer and, I think, also the listeners—maybe they have to listen to the records more than one time before they see. Sometimes I think there are little parts which are the most important things—bits you don't hear the first time, or even if there are some little solos underneath, you might not notice it's a solo because it is more hidden, more like anticipation."

"Since I'm an autodidact in writing, I developed a language which is my own. I think that makes it a little bit harder, but the good side is that it is more personal. The bad side is that it takes more time. It's based around teaching yourself: I have something in my mind, I write it down, I play it, I listen again, I don't like it, I try and make it better. Writing has a lot to do with taste; it's about my own taste. I like to please my own taste, and not a certain form or structure. Often in the beginning of a tune, what I have in mind is more like an attitude—let's say I want to make a piece which is loud, fast and brutal, or something soft and easy."

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