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Manuel Mengis: Freedom First, History Later

By Published: November 24, 2008
Mengis' two albums, Into The Barn and The Pond (Hatology, 2008), were released nearly three years apart—a fact that reflects his carefully considerate approach to making music. In the back-cover blurb for The Pond, Michael Rosenstein declares that this "measured deliberation is something that is all too rare these days." Mengis identifies a slight difference in attitude in the featured material. "I think the first album was more like rough energy and the second was smoother, maybe, more controlled," he states uncertainly. "That band is capable of playing with really high energy, especially live, and I wanted to keep doing that, but try something more controlled. The repertoire is expanding from really controlled stuff to really free blowing. Now, for the next recording, I am trying to make it different again."

Into The Barn was recorded in 2004 and released the next year by HatHut records. Mengis considers himself fortunate to have the backing of Werner X. Uehlinger's renowned independent label. "I made the recording, but I didn't have any contacts with record companies. I sent it out to different people and, after three days, I got the call. It was really very easy! I always thought you had to have connections, that you had no chance if you didn't know people, so it was a very nice thing because I did not believe it was still possible like that. It's funny, because the label is really well known, and I was almost a little bit rude to the guy when he called because he didn't say the name of the company and I didn't realize who it was. I had been very naive, but of course I was really happy. It's great that if he finds something he likes, he will release it, even if it's a person who is not known."

The first CD was very well received, so why did Mengis leave such a long gap until the next one? "I was not ready to just go and do the second one quickly. I didn't want to rush. From the business angle, I don't think it's great to wait very long, but I wasn't ready. We played some gigs, we had a little break, we did other things, played with different people, and then I started to write again and it took its time. Then we had to find time for rehearsals, the studio, and it's two years! It's a long process and I didn't want to make stress for anyone. Also, sometimes it takes a while to be released on the label. For the second CD we made the recording a year in advance and I thought we had moved on by the time it was out, but it's not that important for other people to see immediately. I don't want to appear too serious—it's not like the whole world is waiting for Manuel Mengis! You have to take it easy, and the most important thing is that you move on, even if the documentary is a little bit late."

Logistical difficulties in assembling the sextet played a part in this delay, and Mengis admits past reservations about the size of his group. "It is more difficult to go play gigs and be paid with six people than three people. I had moments when I thought, "Gosh, I'm really stupid! Why do I have such a large band?" but that hard point of making business work was not enough to stop me. I decided to carry on, and I try to write music which is interesting for the others. It's not just a job, because if it was just a job the band would not exist anymore.

"I think about the personalities of the others when I am writing—maybe not only what they like to do, but how they play, and also things I would like them to try, to challenge them. Maybe that is why the group still exists—because, so far, the music has been challenging for them, which they use to find new aspects of themselves. The other side is that we don't hang out together all the time, but when we're on tour or playing it is a chemistry that always works. You don't have to be best friends, but you must have pleasure in working together. I'm really lucky because it's not obvious our situation is like that. Sometimes you have to change the group if chemistry is not working or people want to go in a different direction, but when new things or concerts are happening, the others get organized and it always works." An admirable stance. The music itself is the simplest way to understand why Mengis is so desperate to keep the Gruppe 6 alive: a profound sense of creative cohesion and pure pleasure in spontaneous understanding is there for all to hear.

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