Mike Mainieri: Man Behind Bars
Mainieri would ultimately recruit Aarset and the "Norwegian Posse" for Northern Lights (NYC Records, 2006), an album that mixed Mainieri originals, a couple of standards and some open-ended improv into a compelling disc that demonstrates, perhaps more than many, just how open-minded Mainieri continues to be, even as he was approaching his seventies. His admiration for Aarset goes even further. "He's an amazing musician, a very deep player. I had a very weird arrangement of [John Coltrane's] 'Giant Steps' that I was gonna record, but I never got to it. I said to Eivind, 'I'm gonna do this one Coltrane piece, you don't have to play on it.' Which was very presumptuous of methat he couldn't blow on it. He started playing it, like 'You mean this?' I was thinking, 'Look at this motherfucker!' His language is so deep. And Bugge [Wesseltoft] is unbelievable. He's got it all. They just choose not to do it, it's not their tradition.
"[Recording] 'Nature Boy' wasn't even my idea. [Live Sampler] Jan [Bang] got into a nice groove with it, and we start playing the tune, and then Nils Petter started singing it. It went on for 20 minutes; Nils Petter sang the whole thing and then played trumpet, and he said, 'Don't put that on there!' [laughs] That's how that tune wound up on the record."
Contrary to purists who look at someone like Pål "DJ Strangefruit" Nyhus with a certain amount of derision, Mainieri is open enough to realize that he's not just an incredibly musical turntablist, but one whose knowledge of the music goes far and wide. "This guy has like ears like an elephant," Mainieri enthuses, and continues to heap praise on Jan Bang. "Jan was there with us, he programmed a little of the stuff and was building this treasure chest of sounds from a festival we'd done, with the finale in a church, with Jan using everything we had played and performed."
As well-conceived as Northern Lights sounds and feels, it was largely built from the ground up in the studio. "I brought one tune that was fully orchestrated, called 'Vertigo,' and everything else was done in the studio. I wanted to do a Björk tune; I had the melody and changes. Everything else on the disc we jammed, which was a really good way for me to work with the band. I was going to do another Northern Lights record, because we're touring in February , but I wasn't feeling well. Still, [keyboardist] Bugge [Wesseltoft] likes to construct a lot of things on the spot, have a sketch and then start building, so I'm looking forward to the next gig, which is gonna be with Bugge, Bendik, and either [drummer] Paolo [Vinaccia] or Auden [Kleive]. The Norwegians are very family- oriented, which is a great thing. To have Bugge commit to the tour is a big deal."
That artists like Wesseltoft draw huge crowds in Europe and farther abroad but can barely draw flies here, seems a poor reflection on a somewhat xenophobic American scene. "Bugge came here last year ," says Mainieri. "And he said, 'Where can I play?' He wound up playing a little joint in the East Village, and there were like eight people there. I brought friends and they loved it but there was no one there. There were a few Norwegians there at the bar. Pretty soon, it'll be like, 'Come, listen and I'll pay you $85. There are so many European bands: some great straight-ahead players in Italy; Germany is a totally different scene with DJs and other interesting music, different camps. And here, there are so many kids coming out of conservatory, and where do they go? A lot wind up becoming teachers, and still there are more students coming up. I've tried to hip others to what's happening in Norway, and they go, 'What the fuck is that? It's noise, man!' I think there's something more organic going on there; either you get it or you don't."
Mainieri's discography as a leader, outside Steps Ahead, is relatively small but in every way consistent in its significance. It's also vastly overlooked. Two particularly intriguing discs are An American Diary (NYC, 1995) and An American Diary: The Dreaming (NYC, 1997). The first, with a core group of saxophonist Joe Lovano, Eddie Gomez and Peter Erskine, explores music by a cross-section of American composers including Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Frank Zappa and Samuel Barber, as well as a handful of originals by Mainieri and Erskine. It reflects Maineiri's upbringing in a house where classical music was as influential as jazz, and Mainieri's arrangements are stunning, especially a waltz-time version of West Side Story's "Somewhere" that goes to completely unexpected places. The Dreaming, with George Garzone replacing Lovano and a variety of guests including percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan, wife Dee Carstensen on harp, cellist Erik Friedlander and slide guitarist David Tronzo, took a different turn; an even more personal album, it incorporates a wealth of musical and philosophical traditions that have resonated throughout Mainieri's life, ranging from Australian Aboriginals and the Sephardic tradition to Philippine folk songs, American folk music and the religious prayers of the Peyote Indians. Together, they paint an even broader picture of Mainieri and his appreciation of all things musical, but filtered through a distinct jazz prism.
"The Copland piece ["Piano Sonata (Vivace)"] was the seed for An American Diary," says Mainieri. "I had been listening to Copland; I loved his scores and following his pieces. I heard that piano sonata on PBS and I thought, 'Wow, that doesn't really sound like Copland.' There was this fast, vivace section that I thought it sounded kinda Monkish. Then I started thinking about exploring some other classical pieces. I went through everythingoperas, Bernstein pieces, Zappa and Charles Ives' unfinished symphony. It came together slowly."
The Dreaming's genesis was a little different. "I was on the road with Steps, and [singer] Noa opened for me in Israel," Mainieri continues. "She sang and knocked me out, and we became good friends, and so I asked her to sing on the album." As for Mainieri's writing for the album, it was as deep as it was listenable. "'R' is for Riddle" was almost like a riddle," he explains, "which we have in every culture. The song is built on tone rows; the vibraphone is playing 12- tone rows, four notes that change, while the sax is playing a different row. In the bridge there's this rhythm. So, when you put the little 'R' between every rest it spells abracadabra. It was architectural to me."
While the timing is still up in the air, Mainieri was so happy with the results of the two American Diary albums that a third is underway. "I'm about halfway through; I talked to Erskine recently, and he said, 'When are we gonna do it?' I said, 'I'm not there yet, I'm still building it.' I hope to have it complete by the end of next summer ."
Both albums took considerable time to put together, but a third album released around the same time, that took far less, was Mainieri's Man Behind Bars (NYC, 1995). A true solo effort, with Mainieri playing all instrumentsvibes, marimbas, chimes, xylophone, percussion, midi vibes, piano and drumshe literally recorded and mixed it over a weekend. With a series of spontaneous compositions, and a couple of well-chosen covers including a definitive reading of Wayne Shorter's Miles Davis-era "ESP," it's an album that sounds as though it was more preconceived, despite the truth of the matter. Drum machines drive the groove- centric homage to Jeremy & the Satyrs, "Satyr Dance," while hand percussion drives a Latin-esque version of John Coltrane's enduring "Equinox."
Still, the vibraphonist's feelings about the album were mixed, at least at the time. "I had a licensing deal with the German Intuition label, which put out NYC," Mainieri explains. "They were going bankrupt and I owed them one more album. They couldn't pay me and they said, 'You owe us one more album.' It was a Thursday, so I said, 'You'll have it Monday.' I went into my studio with my percussion instruments and a set of drums and, over the weekend, made the album. I thought, 'Wow, I should do this more often.' I get so distracted with things. I am still looking for the sketches of those scores. They were just little sketches, just ideas. I did the album in two or three days and sent it to Intuition, and said, 'Our deal is up.' I really didn't think much of that record. I didn't release it here, because I had a bad taste in my mouth. Other musicians have said, however, 'Hey, I like that album,' so I did finally release it, but I never sent it for review or promoted it in any way."
It's a shame, and with the passing of time, Mainieri looks fondly back at that time. "The three albums do connect. It was a good period for me; I was in a nice creative place around then, I had the studio and I hadn't had my daughter yet, or she was very young. I had a lot of time to write. I did go out on the road a little bit for those albums."
Mainieri has also worked producing his wife, Dee Carstensena vocalist, songwriter and harpist. "She came to New York from Rochester, and knew Tony Levin and Gadd. When she came to New York, they said, 'Find Mike Mainieri, he might produce your record.' She had a video of her singing and playing the harp, and so I signed her. She actually also sang on Bendik's IX."
The first album on which the two collaborated was Beloved One (NYC, 1993). "That wasn't her at all," Mainieri says. "I totally forgot she played the harp. So when we decided to make the record, we said, 'well let's make a pop record,' but she was really a folkie, and so her last album, Patch of Blue (NYC, 2005) was much more like her, with the harp more upfront. That was before she got sick."