Joe Maneri: Lost in the Conservatory

Several years ago I was sent a review copy of reedman/pianist/composer Joe Maneri’s first CD, Get Ready to Receive Yourself (Leo), and was astonished by it. Not only was it a great, unique disc, Maneri was years ahead of his time—even though he was 68. How could someone with Maneri’s tremendous creativity, someone that is so singular, that has invented his own system of music, go unnoticed for so long? What was his work like when he was younger? Did any recordings of it exist?

I called the publicity firm that had sent me his album and they couldn’t answer my questions, but gave me Maneri’s phone number. I called him, we talked for about an hour and I began to piece together his biography. Yes, Maneri did have private recordings of his improvising and compositions that went back to the mid-1950s; he sent me some, and they demonstrate that he was decades ahead of his time when he was 30 years old. In the 1950s and ’60s, Maneri practiced the kind of genre blending being done recently by John Zorn and Dave Douglas.

It’s scary to think about, but if Maneri hadn’t had a devoted son, violinist Mat, who’d pushed him back into playing in public, he’d be unknown today. How many great musicians, artists and writers are around that we know nothing about? Maneri is just now beginning to get the kind of attention he deserves. But his 1990s CDs issued on Leo, Hat Art, ECM and the new, terrific Tales of Rohnlief (ECM), represent the tip of the iceberg. Maneri was an astonishing musician long before he cut them.

Maneri, now 73, was born in 1927 in New York to Sicilian immigrants and raised in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Though a bright kid, he couldn’t seem to do well in school. Much later, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, but when he was a teenager nobody knew what that was or how to treat it.

Flunking all his classes, Maneri had to quit school, although he remembers some teachers—Mr. Kirschbaum, Mrs. Hart, Miss Cedarburg—recognizing his musical ability and encouraging him; their efforts influenced him later when he began teaching. Maneri had been taught some things about music and clarinet playing by a neighborhood drummer/shoe repairman/furniture maker and, at 15, embarked on a career as a professional clarinetist. Soon he was playing any kind of music he could in any kind of club that would pay him. His early experiences were unsettling, to say the least, but Maneri loved music and learned from them.

“Without knowing what was wrong, I had to leave high school and went on the road playing clarinet and saxophones, sometimes together [à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk] and scat singing. I had difficulties. The difficulties I had in school continued in real life,” Maneri admits. “I had to count my money 15 times to make sure I had it all, and read things over and over until I knew what they meant. It even bothered me in reading music. Because of this I had a low opinion of myself. When people complimented me, said I played great, I didn’t know what that meant.”

In 1946, pianist Ted Harris hired Maneri to play clarinet and saxophones in his jazz group, which also contained guitarist Angelo Musolino, who later became a successful composer/arranger, and drummer Aldo Lanfranco, who Maneri describes as a very advanced stylist. Harris was studying classical music with Josef Schmid, who had once been a student of Alban Berg’s. For fun, Harris and his band would improvise free and atonal jazz. Intrigued by this, Maneri began a 10-year-long course of study with Schmid, who acquainted him with the music of everyone from Palestrina to Schoenberg, and taught him to write in their styles. By the end of the decade-long course, Maneri was teaching Schoenberg’s methods to his own students.

In order to make a living, Maneri played ethnic weddings of all sorts, and became intrigued with the microtonal music of the Greeks, Arabs, Turks and Armenians. He sometimes played for belly dancers. “It would be like ballet, and the audiences were knowledgeable and critical,” Maneri says. Greek clarinetist Charlie Gardenis had a strong influence on his work.

Maneri also dabbled in cinema scoring when, around 1995, he made a soundtrack for the film of his friend, painter George Dworzan. He recorded separate, freely improvised clarinet, tenor sax and prepared piano parts, then speeded up the clarinet, slowed down the tenor and mixed the tracks to create the soundtrack. Though influenced by Schoenberg and Varese, it was a totally unique piece of music.

Around 1960, Maneri and a group of his friends combined to present a program of their compositions at Carnegie Recital Hall. Maneri’s efforts received fine reviews and, as a result, Eric Leinsdorf, conductor of the Boston Symphony, commissioned him to write a piano concerto. Upon receiving Maneri’s finished work, however, Leinsdorf consulted Gunther Schuller about it. Maneri says that Leinsdorf and Schuller concluded that it would be so difficult to perform that the amount of rehearsals needed to perfect it would cost too much; the work wasn’t performed publicly until 20 years later.

Soon after, in 1963, Schuller was conducting a series of avant garde classical works in Carnegie Hall and did a piece by David Reck, “Number One for Twelve Performers,” dedicated to Ornette Coleman. Schuller needed a tenor saxophonist to improvise within the context of the piece, and flutist Robert DiDomenica recommended Maneri. Fortunately, Dworzan recorded the piece from the radio, and Maneri can be heard improvising completely original lines that fit perfectly into the fabric of the composition.

Schuller, who had a major part in publicizing Coleman, was so impressed with Maneri’s playing that he tried to secure a recording contract for him at Atlantic. He wasn’t able to, but Maneri did make a test recording that has been preserved. On it he plays tenor sax and clarinet with a rhythm section that includes drummer Pete Dolger, a forward-looking musician who worked with Maneri on a lot of Greek events, pianist Don Burns and bassist John Beal. The date produced seven selections and was eventually released as Paniots Nine by John Zorn on Avant. The CD contains remarkable free jazz performances by Maneri, who uses microtones and multiphonics, honks and screams, producing raw timbres. It’s rhythmically compelling, as well, with Maneri sometimes rushing ahead of the beat, sometimes laying behind it and he and Dolger employ odd meters in their compositions.

In 1970, Schuller hired Maneri to teach theory and composition at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he remains. At that time, using the concepts of the pioneering Ezra Sims as a point of departure, Maneri systematized his knowledge of microtonal music in his book Preliminary Studies in the Virtual Pitch Continuum, and invented his own version of a microtonal keyboard instrument. Ten years later, then grad student Hankus Netsky was getting into the budding klezmer revival movement, recruiting Don Byron and Frank London for his Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra, and invited Maneri to perform at a concert of Jewish music. Maneri responded with a long, amazing clarinet performance in which he drew on Jewish, Greek, classical and jazz genres, fusing and extending them into something completely unique. The performance was recorded and it is also on Paniots Nine.

But after that 1981 concert, Maneri pretty much gave up performing in public. Soon after joining the NEC faculty, he gave faculty members tapes containing his compositions and improvisations, but his work was ignored. “To this day I have not been invited by the faculty of the jazz department to play at NEC. I had the right to put on my own concerts and did so, but hardly anyone showed up,” Maneri admits.

In the late 1980s, Mat Maneri began playing in various Boston groups and soon impressed people with his technical virtuosity and improvisatory skill on violin. Father Maneri had kept up his chops, playing at informal gatherings for students at his home, where everyone got a chance to perform. Now Mat was dragging him to gigs to play: Pianist Jack Reilly, who’d studied with Maneri in the 1960s and been in the bands of George Russell, Ben Webster and John LaPorta, got him to work on a Boston gig in 1988; Maneri and son appeared with Paul Bley at the 1992 Montreal Jazz Festival, and got a great reaction. Maneri also cut a limited edition CD with Mat and percussionist Masashi Harada in 1989, Kalavinka.

Continuing to encourage his father, Mat made some tapes of his dad playing with him, drummer Randy Peterson and bassists John Lockwood or Ed Schuller. Get Ready to Receive Yourself, issued in 1995, wasn’t a huge seller, but the CD caught the ear of ECM producer Steve Lake, who hipped label owner Manfred Eicher to it. Impressed, Eicher recorded father and son with guitarist Joe Morris on Three Men Walking. The CD got excellent critical reaction, and led to an interest in Maneri’s work by Hat Art, which subsequently issued Dahabenzapple, Comin’ Down the Mountain and Tenderly, while Leo issued Let the Horse Go and ECM put out In Full Cry and Blessed.

Prior to Tales of Rohnlief, all of Maneri’s albums were recorded with Mat, Peterson and either Lockwood, Schuller or Cecil McBee on bass. However, on Rohnlief, Maneri, on clarinet, alto, tenor and piano, and Mat, on six-string electric and baritone violins, are joined by a new bassist, Barre Phillips. Their music, which is very powerful, is also extremely subtle. There are no pre-determined harmonic foundations, tempos or even solo sequences. Collective improvisation is featured. To come off well, music like this has to be performed by musicians who are gifted, knowledgeable and/or have frequently worked together. It’s a great credit to Phillips that he can integrate his playing so smoothly with the Maneris’. All three musicians improvise unpredictably, employing unusual intervals, yet their phrases fit together like the pieces of an intact jigsaw puzzle. Individually and collectively they produce rich, unique textures. Maneri’s and Mat’s doubling gives the group a far greater range of colors than most trios. Best known as a clarinet and tenor sax player, Maneri plays beautifully on alto and piano as well. He’s got a relatively light, pretty alto sound, much brighter than his tenor sonority. His piano work is economical and precise. Maneri also recites some of his poetry here in a language he made up himself that sounds something like Swedish. Not surprisingly, it’s quite musical.

As for his use of microtones, Maneri divides the octave into 72 pitches—and he doesn’t see much future for the diatonic scale. “It’s outmoded. There’s no question that writing and playing in key signatures is over,” Maneri says. “Even pop performers are intuitively aware of this and sometimes depart from conventional Western harmony. Pee Wee Russell, who influenced me, used microtones very skillfully.”

Over the years Maneri’s playing has impressed other musicians, including Bley and George Russell, who have called him a “genius,” and Cecil Taylor and Ran Blake. Many of his former students, like keyboardists John Medeski and Jamie Saft, tubist Marcus Rojas and trumpeters Frank London and Cuong Vu, have raved about his ability as a teacher as well as his musical greatness. Having had learning problems, Maneri consistently gives extra attention and time to his students. Rojas was put at ease by the fact that Maneri, like him, was a regular “neighborhood guy” from Brooklyn, who sometimes ate sandwiches while teaching. “Even the bright kids get ripped off in school; they deserve more challenges,” Maneri says. For some time now he’s given all his students “A” grades in order “to recognize that book knowledge isn’t everything, that great discoveries have been made by people that haven’t had much formal education.”

For years, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. on Fridays, Maneri has held free workshops on microtonality. “Now that more people have heard of me, my classes are being attended by people from other schools, even out of state. I get a big kick out of complimenting and encouraging students. It’s an honor,” he says.

But Maneri’s not getting the amount of work you’d think he would in view of his accomplishments and the high esteem in which other musicians hold him. “I only played seven gigs in 1999, but I’d like to play much more,” he admits. “Playing before an audience that’s tuned in to my work is a great privilege and joy. If they’re not [tuned in], it’s a great challenge to try to reach them with love. The things I accomplished I want to be in the hearts of everyone I meet.”

Listening Pleasures

Mat Maneri/Pandelis Karayorgis: Lift & Poise (Leo)

Pee Wee Russell

Barre Phillips

Lester Young

Gearbox

Maneri plays a Selmer Series III tenor; an 85-year-old Conn alto sax; and a Buffett clarinet. Maneri says he’ll play any piano around, but he really likes the Steinway where they recorded Tales of Rohnlief.

Originally published in June 2000

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