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Manuel Mengis: Freedom First, History Later

By Published: November 24, 2008
Switzerland's small size makes it relatively easy for musicians to travel for work, but, as in any country, it's not an easy life. Jazz players have a long history of maintaining second jobs to supplement their incomes, and Mengis is no exception. "My other job is mountain guiding," he explains. "That gives me enough money, because I could not make a living just by playing. Mountaineering and climbing is something very different, maybe also good. I think it helps my perspectives—for my personality and making music, it's good that I have another side that is really different. My job as a guide has aspects I wouldn't want to miss as well, and I'm sure it's better than if I had to play commercial gigs. It gives me a choice, which means I can make the music I really want to. In the best moments, I have a balanced life, but in the worst moments it's a collision of the two worlds, like if I would go to the mountains for three days with a client, come back, and get ready for a gig. But variety is important. I need to have that aspect of nature and being outside, working, using your body, weather in the face and everything!"

This love of the kind of freedom only the great outdoors can provide is clearly reflected in Mengis's music and thinking. The fact that Switzerland lacks any constraint from jazz tradition also plays a major part in his creative opus. In an article entitled "Bloom Time for Jazz from Switzerland" on the HatHut website, critic Tom Gsteiger emphatically describes his country as a "jazz paradise" before toning down this rather hyperbolic opening to construct a reasoned and very well-informed discussion of why its contemporary music scene is in such good health. Drawing potent comparisons with New York cultural policy and the drawbacks of the American jazz "system," he quotes veteran Canadian writer Juan Rodriguez: "The Americans have a big problem with their jazz tradition: how to overcome the immortals? The Swiss don't seem to have those hang-ups. Their music is totally non-derivative and yet based on a very keen study of what came before, they avoid the cliches because they know them."

Manuel Mengis is part of this growing movement. When asked if it is an advantage or disadvantage coming from a country where no one expects jazz to be, he replies: "Yes, I think for me it was a help, because it gave me the freedom I was searching for. I think, even though I'm nodding to jazz music, it's not like there was a tradition I had to adhere to. I didn't think I had to learn a certain vocabulary—it's not like I had to learn all the standards first, the bebop phrasing and the rest. Jazz for me isn't like that; it doesn't work that way—it's more freedom. There is no American approach; that's not my approach. I was not growing up in New York or Louisiana. I'm not playing the blues because it's not my background. I like to play things which relate to the blues, but I'm not out of that scene. Some people might think that's not an advantage, but it's also some freedom; it depends how you look at it. As I see the music, there's not a distinguished way you have to play, or everybody plays. I was never interested in copying other people or playing a certain way I knew. I always wanted to be a little bit different."

Furthermore, he wants his music to speak to a wider audience than traditional jazz lovers. "I'm not interested in playing music for people who only listen to jazz. I don't want to talk about things like, "Oh, I hear that phrase, I know that phrase, it's great—Wow, I can play it at tempo 240 and that guy played it on this record the same," or whatever. I'm not interested in that. Maybe if I was from Spain and I loved flamenco, I would play that all my life, but here the situation is more about different influences."

"I hope my music can appeal to a lot of different people, especially in its live concept. The most important thing when I play music is the live situation, and using that I can reach people. I've already had people coming up after concerts saying, "I never listen to jazz—I normally listen to rock—but I really liked it!" There are some parts of that attitude in it. If people see it live, they can understand what's going on. It's less abstract. I'm not really interested in making music just for nerds, if you see what I mean. There are jazz nerds and there are jazz people, but I want to make music for people who are able to listen to music. Some of them like it and some of them don't, and that is also important. You can't just play music that is nice for everybody."

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