"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
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 meaningfulif not as easy to recognize and pigeonholethan 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 notessometimes tied to the rolls, sometimes notis 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.