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Mike Mainieri: Man Behind Bars

John Kelman By

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Mike MainieriAmerican Diaries and Behind Bars

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 everything—operas, 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 [2010]."

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 instruments—vibes, marimbas, chimes, xylophone, percussion, midi vibes, piano and drums—he 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."

Mike MainieriIt'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 Carstensen—a 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."

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