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Shelly Manne: "The Three" & "The Two"

David A. Orthmann By

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"Perhaps the key to understanding his achievement is to realize that, despite the virtues of his instrumental skills, he viewed himself, perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, as a musician first and a drummer only second." class="f-right">—Ted Gioia



"When I'm playing, I think along melodic lines. For instance, I can go up as the notes go up. I may not hit them on the head, but the drums are a very sympathetic instrument and I can sometimes sound like I'm playing the melody without being right in tune. Naturally, I don't have the whole keyboard at my fingertips. I've only got four drums to work with, so I do the best I can with them to point out the melodic line." class="f-right">—Shelly Manne



Shelly Manne's 'The Three' & 'The Two'Shelly Manne's The Three and The Two (Contemporary Records), a pair of sessions recorded four days apart in September of 1954, and originally released separately on ten-inch LPs, are arguably the most unusual and daring records in the drummer's extensive and varied discography. These decidedly experimental sides share an origin of fairly conventional circumstances. Manne played drums (and sometimes co-led) a popular West Coast group called Shorty Rogers and His Giants. The group's live sets often included brief segments with Manne and two horns (usually Rogers' trumpet and Jimmy Giuffre's reeds, excluding a pianist and bassist. In other instances, Manne and pianist Russ Freeman improvised while the rest of the group took a break.

One of the primary goals of these temporary, atypical groupings was to find new sounds that encompassed a degree of rhythmic freedom, without abandoning the feeling of conventional swing. This stretching of boundaries, a desire to marry the old and the new, was extended to the eclectic programs of The Three and The Two, which included: Giuffre and Rogers' integration of jazz and European musical forms, such the rondo and twelve-tone composition; free, unrehearsed improvisation; tunes by Freeman, based on his live gig segments with Manne; and unusual versions of saxophonist Charlie Parker compositions, as well as novel treatments of items from the Great American Songbook.

By the time The Three and The Two were recorded, Manne had earned an estimable reputation for his work with the Stan Kenton Band and the Lighthouse All Stars, as well as progressive, forward-thinking sides under his leadership on Contemporary Records. He was an extraordinary musician who consistently found ways to match the creative ferment of his West Coast peers; he, too, had one foot in the jazz tradition and the other in the future. As the opening quotes imply, Manne did not regard the absence of a bassist as an invitation to show off his considerable technique. Instead, his support of and interaction with Rogers, Giuffre, and Freeman achieved something far more meaningful—if not as easy to recognize and pigeonhole—than any display of blazing chops.

Throughout "Flip," Manne's lone composition on The Three, there's a symbiotic relationship between his deliberate, workman-like approach to the music, and a host of eccentric touches. Manne's strong suit is making ostensibly disparate elements sound compatible. As he explicitly states or implies a pulse, offers a variety of colors and textures, and interacts with Giuffre's clarinet and Rogers' trumpet, most of his ideas last just long enough to make an impression, before he moves on to yet another combination of strokes and footwork.

Manne's modus operandi entails listening closely, spontaneously responding to Giuffre and Rogers' solos and contrapuntal lines, all the while respecting the confines of a traditional, 32-bar form. At various points in the track's three minutes, Manne executes conventional jazz time with brushes; falls silent for short periods; drums his hands and fingers on the snare and tom toms; and uses the bass drum as a means of hard, impudent punctuation. The end result of this varied activity is an odd kind of stability, in which things come together, break apart, and then are reborn in a related form.

Not unlike every other track on the record, there are a number of "Manne moments" that stand out. For the first sixteen bars of Giuffre's solo, he abandons a strict timekeeping role in favor of inserting brief, spread out, snapping phrases that supplement the clarinetist's lines. The onset of Rogers' solo finds Manne, hands on snare, slamming out a back beat and using his fingers to execute tricky, agile accents and fills. The last four bars of Rogers' turn is cut short by the drummer's thunderous, swinging brush break, followed by a sixteen-bar solo that dances around the tune in a manner that's slippery, independent, yet always cognizant of the horns.

Manne moves through a languid, dream-like rendition of "Autumn In New York" with no apparent set of priorities. More of a percussionist than a conventional jazz trapster, he seldom plays anything approximating time or a steady pulse. As the third among equals, Manne is clearly in accord with Giuffre and Rogers (who alternate between melody and counterpoint), even as he asserts himself in ways that are unpredictable but not random. Brief and protracted silences are as significant as any of the fully executed rhythms. The long hiss of a cymbal hangs in the air like cigarette smoke. Rolls on the snare (snares off) executed with mallets aren't so much struck as lightly poured onto and spread out around the melody. The provocative effect of short strings of eighth notes—sometimes tied to the rolls, sometimes not—is tempered by the soft sound of the mallet on the drum head.

During the tune's "B" section, Manne purposefully moves in and out of the mix while Rogers bears down and moves the music forward. After a cymbal swell serenades the trumpeter's arrival, a mallet roll lands on top of several notes in a manner that sounds sympathetic to the melody. Seven neatly executed single strokes mingle with Rogers' phrases. Just when more combinations of rolls and singles are anticipated, Manne drops out and leaves the horns to their own devices for a few bars. A discreet reentry consists of a handful of brush strokes that barely register.

In contrast to "Flip" and "Autumn In New York," Manne is the driving force of Shorty Rogers' "Three On A Row," one of the first twelve-tone compositions performed in the jazz idiom. While Rogers and Giuffre state the tone row a dozen times in various guises and tempos, and make brief transitions in modulating chord progressions, Manne's extroverted, multidimensional drumming holds the various pieces together and prevents the track from sounding like an academic exercise.

When Manne makes calculated trips around the set that support and replicate Rogers' and Giuffre's lines, playing galvanizing two, four, and eight-bar breaks, and occasionally executing conventional time, sometimes it's difficult to tell what's improvised and what's based on Rogers' written score. The element of surprise is never more than a few bars away. After furious brushwork animates an opening that would fit into many of the adventurous Blue Note sessions from the fifties and sixties, in a matter of seconds Manne's scant, out-of-tempo solo strokes wax surreal and bring the music to a standstill. Later on, when a series of tidy, neatly executed breaks start to sound predictable, his spasmodic rim shot, bass and snare combination is wicked and exhilarating.

For the first ten seconds of Charlie Parker's iconic "Steeplechase," Manne lays out his tools in anticipation of the work ahead. Short, semi-independent groups of hits are executed between the snare, bass drum, and tom-toms. Manne gets a warm, rounded sound out of each drum, and leaves a fraction of a second between each snippet, offering no hint of a fixed tempo until the very end. Bits of this intentionally wooly solo introduction reappear in the middle of the second bar of the three "A" sections of the head, when an eight-stroke phrase replicates the first eight notes of Parker's line.

The sweet spot that Manne finds in the thick of Rogers' treatment of the melody and Giuffre's combination of melody and counterpoint is but one element of an inspired piece of rhythmic architecture and execution. He swings without alluding to conventional timekeeping devices; dynamics are in the middle range and the strokes are firm but not overplayed; and, most of all, there's an appealingly relaxed quality to the way he trots out the phrase. Manne doesn't strain to make his point, and the trio's interpretation of Parker's line is unique, in part because of his willingness to blend in with Rogers and Giuffre.

In addition to a couple of items from the Great American Songbook and one Charlie Parker composition, The Two features three originals by pianist Russ Freeman, who wrote down segments of live performances in which he and Manne played as a duo while the rest of Rogers' band laid out. During the medium and up-tempo tracks, the murky undertow of Freeman's left hand jostles against right-hand melodies in ways that are provocative but not pristine. Amidst the dense textures and busy forward movement, Manne's individual strokes don't always project as clearly as on the tracks with Rogers and Giuffre, but the spirited give-and-take between Manne and Freeman is apparent at every turn.

The head of Freeman's "The Sound Effects Manne" wouldn't sound out of place on a mid-to-late 1950s Cecil Taylor record, or on 1960s sides by fellow pianist Andrew Hill. Terse chords and brisk, merry melodies coexist in an uneasy, almost awkward manner, leaving considerable space for Manne to fill. He answers each of Freeman's brief volleys with terse brush strokes, wispy rhyming hits to the cymbal, and fills one hole with variations of a multi-stroke phrase that later on figures prominently in his solos. The real surprise comes in the following sixteen bars, when their roles are reversed: Manne plays the melody, getting a clipped sound—not unlike a small rototom—from his drums and adds more brush strokes, while Freeman executes the counter-line.

Manne's three, 32-bar solos (alternating with Freeman's) might be dubbed, "To swing or not to swing." Wielding brushes, sticks, and mallets—sometimes switching from one to another in mid- chorus)—he generates a singleminded, powerfully swinging momentum, only to subvert it by abruptly inserting odd, discontinuous, gestures—like lightly running a brush across the drum head, vigorously rubbing one stick on another that's placed on the head, or rapidly striking the drum with one mallet at a very low dynamic level. Each solo is a willful, disciplined, smartly organized statement that hangs together as a whole, even as the idiosyncrasies add a touch of humor and serve as a reminder that Manne has little use for homogeneity.

Manne's hard, slapping brushes and punchy bass drum obliterate any clear distinction between timekeeping and soloing on a dense, claustrophobic rendition of "Billie's Bounce." The track comes off as a cross between a meeting of the minds and a shoving match, as Charlie Parker's hip, sophisticated tune is transformed into a mad, messy, gleeful scramble. Freeman's penchant for stretching an idea almost beyond recognition, and then rapidly snapping back into a familiar form, is met by a stimulating volley of strokes. Though Manne's rough-and-tumble propulsion surrounds and often threatens to engulf Freeman, he never wrestles the music away from the pianist. The drummer frequently grabs hold of Freeman's phrases, offers tense commentary without breaking stride, and then briskly moves on. Manne's sprightly, four-bar exchanges with Freeman fall into the realm of a conventional jazz drummer's vocabulary, but the force of his brush strokes evokes the sounds of something being slammed, spanked, and nailed down.

Following a couple of sturdy choruses of Freeman's "Speak Easy," Manne and his partner take another tack. While the chord structure of Freeman's line remains intact and offers a degree of familiarity, the duo diverges and pursues separate, parallel paths. Each doggedly tends to his own solo while evincing an ambiguous awareness of the other's actions. The music possesses an odd, erratic quality, as if it is being rapidly switched on and off. Despite the abrupt stops, hesitations, and pauses, Manne's ebullient beats give the impression of constant, agitated and determined movement. He skips from one phrase to another without making obvious transitions or clear connections, attaining a rough, imperfect equilibrium that encompasses bits and pieces of swing and Latin rhythms. Taken in its entirety, the chorus is a bustling abstraction that loosely coheres as Manne and Freeman trip, stumble and hopscotch from place to place, fall silent, and manage to converge for a few seconds at a time.

The significance of Manne's performances on The Three and The Two lies in the ways in which his musical personality shines on every track. Manne's strength, intelligence, ingenuity and willingness to take risks—as well as his desire to place himself deep inside of the music with a pure joy in playing the drums—thrives within and transcends the experimental nature of these records. The absence of a bassist, the employment of unusual forms and the presence of three peers who clearly wanted to do things differently than most jazz musicians of the mid-1950s—all of these things were contributing factors in some of the finest performances of his prolific career as a recording artist. In the end, not unlike any great jazz artist, Manne's signature achievement on these sides was simply being himself.

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