Rick Mandyck/Gregg Keplinger: Tribute

Jason West By

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It seems fitting that, only days after last month's monster electrical storm descended upon Seattle, the duo of R. Mandyck and G. Keplinger unleashed sonic shockwaves of their own upon the local jazz community with the release of "Tribute."

For nearly an hour, fans of energy music can hear lightning burst from Mandyck's tenor, illuminating the heavens with bolts of melody, while Keplinger's drums crash and roll ubiquitous thunder. Six songs later, after all the power and fury has ceased, this duo's most humbling note remains faint but clear: a perfect clarion call of thanks to kindred spirits, John Coltrane and Elvin Jones.

"Those were the scriptures," says Mandyck, who spent years immersed in Coltrane's recordings, absorbing every tenor passage, every note, until those distant worlds and beyond were within his reach.

Gregg Keplinger is one of a handful that attended 'Trane's "Live in Seattle" (Impulse '66) date. A self-proclaimed Elvin Jones fanatic, Gregg fell in love with that drummer's sound many moons ago. "I hear stuff in my head loud," says Keplinger. "I think it loud—or exciting, or intense, or dense." That's Gregg. Like Elvin, his playing is too much for words.

The result is Tribute: six tunes that bare the fruit of 10 years worth of Mandyck/Keplinger collaboration. Recorded at Jack Straw in July '97, with Doug Haire at the controls, the CD features a version of Coltrane's "Creation," from the Coast to Coast album, (Moon, '65), and "Seraphic Light" from Stellar Regions (Impulse '67), along with three similarly combustible Mandyck compositions and an Ellington ballad, "I Can't Get Started."

Mandyck's "Tweedle Dum" starts things off with a marching back-beat and matching tenor syncopation that empties out into a street parade of second-line rhythm and multiphonic saxophone modulations. The impression is comparable to welcoming Mardi Gras into your living room.

"Seraphic Light" and "Margo Marches On" are introduced with broad rays of sanctified tenor sustain and percussive crescendos—the calm before the storm. Both themes build on a sequence of three majestic notes hypnotically delivered by Mandyck in every possible combination. Yet their essence arrives with their absence, as the solo roll of Keplinger's snare and the windmill rumble of floor-toms offer a musical glimpse of infinite motion.

Elvin Jones, when asked once what he thought aspiring drummers should practice, responded: "Learn how to roll. Learn how to make a perfect roll." For any young drummers who wish to hear an example of a perfect roll, I suggest you listen to Gregg Keplinger on this recording.

It's a little known fact that as a precocious schoolboy, Rick Mandyck developed a reputation among his classmates as a rather promising musician. It seems that while the rest of the kids practised how to duck and cover, Rick would let loose hell-raising, Tarzan-like jungle calls much like the one heard at the beginning of "Creation." However, this primordial shout only seems to spur Keplinger on to even greater levels of solo percussive intensity. Scientists may fail to agree on the precise date of the Big Bang, but at least Tribute listeners will know what it sounded like.

Which brings to mind something else of interest: With so much music so tightly packed into this galloping recording, a listener's focus naturally begins to shift to the spaces that separate the flurries of sound. One starts to anticipate Mandyck gathering breath before re-submerging his horn in Keplinger's cyclical, layers of rhythm. As a result, we are invited to listen differently, and for many, to appreciate music in a whole new way.

Mandyck's lovely rendering of Ellington's "I Cant Get Started" again points to Coltrane. Like Trane, Rick embellishes the melody notes, employing rapid arpeggios as launching pads and landing gear through the song's first 32 bars. These melodic omens are fully realized in the solo chorus, as what were brief flourishes become soaring note-clusters in orbit around Duke's harmonic structure. Throughout the entire CD, and on this tune especially, Mandyck's tone is fat and full, prompting Rick—who switched from saxophone to guitar in early '98—to call Tribute his best tenor sound on record.

Certainly, for anyone who has spent the better part of their life making music, it is a wonderful feeling knowing that your best work is available to the rest of the world. And fortunately, the rest of the world now has an opportunity to purchase Tribute and join an exclusive group of Mandyck/Keplinger admirers. Three hundred to be exact, equaling the number of discs printed by Origin.

This review was previously published in Earshot Jazz magazine.


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