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Mat Maneri - Pentagon

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Artist: Mat Maneri

Album: Pentagon

Label: Thirsty Ear

Review date: Oct. 3, 2005

Pentagon is an hour-long slice of errata from the always interesting violinist/violist Mat Maneri. His third release for Thirsty Ear (following the excellent Blue Decco and Sustain) shows Maneri exploring some possibilities at the intersection of electronics and acoustic music. Whether processing the instruments themselves (a regular tactic here) or situating the improvising in a context saturated by references to electric idioms, Maneri’s exploratory nature is once again in the spotlight. (Though, as ever, it’s his singular improvising that compels, regardless of context.) The core group heard here consists of Maneri, Craig Taborn (laptop and Rhodes), drummer Tom Rainey, and trombonist Ben Gerstein, though also on board in various places are Sonja Maneri (vocals), T.K. Ramakrishnan (mridungum), bassist John Hebert, drummer John McLellan, Jamie Saft (mellotron), and patriarch Joe Maneri (keyboards, alto sax, and voice).

With these players and these possibilities, this recording ought to be dynamite. It sometimes is, but too often isn’t. It’s an ambitious release insofar as it attempts to take in a number of different approaches, knitting them together in a semi-suite. Your clue to the organizational strategy is the fact that the intro, the conclusion, and the middle track all feature multi-tracked, Webern-ish string playing that give the listener an interesting window onto Maneri’s soundworld by referencing a key influence. Another clue is found in the titles of these pieces, which bespeak an obvious discontent with the Shrub regime (for example, the totally raucous “War Room” features both heated free squealing and bumpnoxious keyboard squelches thickening the mix).

But those markers aside, it’s the album’s incoherence that really stands out since it careens like a pinball between episodes and ideas that don’t add up often enough to make for a satisfying listen. For example, there are a few pieces that – like “W.W.P.” or the tellingly titled “Witches Woo” – attempt an electric Miles rave-up, with Rhodes and saucy horns scattered courtesy of elusive, shifting percussion. Though there are compelling moments of interplay (Gerstein and Taborn stand out aside from Maneri himself), the multiplicity of voices on these pieces often render them a bit directionless to me.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s always a pleasure to listen to Maneri play. His slurred, elongated language is touched up subtly by some electronics and he discourses marvelously, his processed violin achieving either an almost mournful vocal quality (as on “An Angel Passes By”) or a quasi-psychedelic rapture (on “Third Hand – The Fallen,” where his language is kept buoyant by the gurgling percussive movement of the piece). But these fine moments are unfortunately marred by their juxtaposition with throwaway pieces like “Inslut” or “Medley,” pedestrian hip-hop excursuses that seem to serve no purpose whatsoever. It’s not that idiomatic marriages can’t work (they can, just see Mike Ladd) and it’s not that Thirsty Ear hasn’t sponsored excellent meetings (they have). But the best pieces on Pentagon are those shorn of this particular strategy. The disc’s centerpiece “Wound,” by contrast, achieves a kind of crystalline beauty that makes some of the other essays here seem pretty inconsequential. It moves with purpose and weight, with a sense of itself. If only the same could be said of the whole.

By Jason Bivins

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