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Manuel Mengis: Freedom First, History Later

By Published: November 24, 2008
Gsteiger's article also slams the stereotypical view of Swiss folk culture in the eyes of the world, citing one review of Into The Barn which refers to "fears of cowbell and lederhosen music." Mengis also isn't keen on this misleading, jaded perspective: "There is a stereotype that some people may still have, but Switzerland isn't just the lederhosen thing. Like all other countries, we are connected to the whole world. We have a big classical scene, a rock scene, a pop scene. The folklore thing is different anyway—the old folk music is really very interesting. People in the North and South had their own styles. Then there was a famous guy who started the kitsch folklorey thing which really sold with tourists. You have a lot of that going on, but on the other side you have a big scene that is making all different kinds of music. I mean, it's not obvious, for example, for a Swiss guy to have a reggae band, but there is a reggae scene. It's not big, but you find all different styles."

So, to the future. Where does Mengis think jazz is going? "It's a big question, which I hope I can't answer. That would be my preferred view of the jazz scene—not being able to predict what will happen. I think at the moment, a lot of people are starting to write for larger ensembles, with more distinguished stuff, but on the other side there is this kind of punk jazz attitude developing and a mainstream, traditional scene which is also really strong. I think it's going more and more into very diverse styles and, even in five years, it will be much harder for people to label something as jazz, rock, ethno music, contemporary music.

"The genre and label thing is very difficult, especially if you make music which isn't obviously of a certain kind. Some people call my music jazz-rock, but that kind of 'fusion' in the traditional sense was going on 30 years ago and I'm not really doing the same thing. But, in the end, if you talk to people, you need to have terms. Even if they are not ideal, terms can help people to see what you mean. Maybe we will have to find 25 to 30 names for different kinds of jazz music."

People often make comparisons as a form of shorthand for talking about music they are struggling to describe, looking for security by linking the unfamiliar to something they know. Mengis' work is no exception. "Some people say my music sounds like it was influenced by Frank Zappa, and I say 'Thanks, that's really interesting, but I've never really listened to him!' And being compared to Mingus is a huge compliment! I have listened to him, but not all the time. It's weird when you are compared to people you don't know very well yourself. I never had one person I was really fixed on. I don't think there was any one thing which really changed my views, more like maybe 30 people who changed little parts of my hearing."

For the next album, Mengis plans to break with one of his own standards. "I'm fed up of writing long tunes. It's time to change. I was not at that point before, but now I am going through a change of writing style. We had a change of saxophonist for the second CD, and now we also have a new alto player, so the group is evolving as well. Hopefully it will come out in 2009, and I hope we will play a few gigs as well. People still don't know my name, even though I've had some good reviews. It takes a lot of time, a bit of luck, and some people spreading the word."

The end goal, Mengis states, is a situation when "the written part is just the foundation and everything can be improvised," but he acknowledges that it is "hard to achieve," saying, "I want to achieve a creative high point. When I'm playing music with other people, there are moments where it becomes more like a spoken phrase—it becomes a bit like magic, not in a corny way. Sometimes you really have moments like that—you forget what's going on, everyone plays together and there's a certain energy. Maybe the goal is to try and achieve that more and more. That's why everybody does the things they like—a racing driver or anyone—they love getting really into it, being highly concentrated and feeling like they're on a different level."

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