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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.


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