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Manuel Mengis: Freedom First, History Later

Frederick Bernas By

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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.
Jazz is insurmountable. Hundreds of CDs are reviewed by All About Jazz every year, but how many names are recognized? It is endlessly fascinating, yet frustrating—while reveling in the evidence that such a high quantity of music exists, the realization dawns that there aren't enough hours in the day to hear it all. Each name represents an artistic vision, a creative statement, a person or group with something to say, communicating with and through jazz. It's impossible for anyone to do justice to the inspiration, thought and effort that has gone into each record, but together we ought to try.

One man who epitomizes the above is Manuel Mengis. A likely unknown to many readers, the Swiss trumpeter is happy to talk in detail about his modus operandi. "It takes me a long time to write music; it's hard work," he says, speaking from his home in Valais, southern Switzerland. "I have a lot of ideas in my mind. In the first few days, I need to find out what I really want—which notes I want to use. I write a lot of stuff, throw some away, edit, and then after a few days I'm really into it—I can get a clearer picture. And sometimes I'm quite fast. But there's no system when I can just sit down and pull the triggers."

Mengis picked up a trumpet after being inspired by traditional night processions in his hometown. "There was a day once every year when we had a big parade with trumpets playing in the middle of the night. My parents would always wake us up at three or four in the morning and we would go to the balcony. You could hear the trumpets coming closer and closer. It was really a special moment. I think that's how I really started to like that sound you could hear from far away, like singing."

Surrounded by classical music as a child, Mengis discovered jazz in his early teens. "An uncle showed me some records and I really liked it right from the beginning. My parents were always very open to different styles of music and art, but the music they had was mostly classical. When I heard jazz, I became more concentrated. I had a classical teacher, but I used to gather some records and try to play along. I had no idea about the theory side of jazz, but I would try to improvise. It was a really different style of playing—more free."

Listening to his two CDs on HatHut records, it becomes apparent that Mengis cherishes musical freedom. He can't give a percentage of how much of his music is scored and how much is improvised, but he says "a lot is written and a lot is not." His band, Gruppe 6, sees the trumpet player joined by alto and tenor saxophones, electric guitar, electric bass and kit drums. This "little big band" format gives Mengis a rich palette of colors. His compositional flair is evident right from the start of Into The Barn (Hatology, 2005). Drummer Lionel Friedli counts off a rumbustious, jarring groove which sends an instant message: this record definitely won't be dinner jazz. A passage of the three horns battling each other over a perilous backbeat follows, but it all snaps into place again for a choreographed chorus after less than a minute, and the tune continues to ebb and flow for another ten.

Indeed, the shortest piece on either four-track album is just under nine minutes, with the rest in double figures. Is this intentional? "No, not at all," Mengis explains, "When I start writing, I have no idea how long the piece will last. The piece just grows. When I write, I find different ways of putting things together, modulating. The first CD had a lot of long tunes. Some people told me they were too long, but I didn't listen to that. I felt like I wanted to continue. I hadn't found out everything about writing long pieces. I didn't want to finish a tune before I felt I had said what I wanted to say. I also think people who are into music are capable of listening to a tune that lasts 15 minutes. It's not pop music—we don't have those limits for airplay and there is a lot of freedom. I like to have that. It takes time; I give it as much time as it needs."

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