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Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6 - Into The Barn

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Artist: Manuel Mengis Gruppe 6

Album: Into The Barn

Label: Hatology

Review date: Jan. 18, 2006

Manuel Mengis’ Into the Barn is an uncommonly fine candidate for Blindfold test fodder. Spin it for a friend well-versed in free jazz and I’m willing to bet they won’t be able to peg the label, let alone leader and band. That latter expectation isn’t exactly fair given that the disc is Mengis’ debut. But polling the identity of the former is sure to yield answers like Tzadik, Knitting Factory and Atavistic long before Hatology is named in the guessing game. It all speaks to the venerable Swiss label’s ongoing endeavors to broaden its roster and encompass younger players who represent the current incarnation of the creative spirit it has documented since the 1970s.

A lot of different influences and ingredients froth up in the stochastic stylistic stew concocted by the collective energies of Mengis’ Gruppe 6. I hear shreds of Electric Masada in the fast-paced switch back-peppered themes, skronking horn riffs and phosphorescent rock-inflected guitar. Slivers of Steve Coleman and Ken Vandermark also surface in the Frankenstein-like constructions and frequently diaphanous transitions. The general feel is that of the nebulous downtown New York City scene of the 1990s that celebrated pastiche and only transitory allegiance to convention. Another more fundamental influence evident in Mengis’ own playing, both open and muted, is Miles. His sharp, cool-toned interpolations ride a seething backdrop of chugging ostinato electric bass and percussive patter in the chimerically-structured minefield of “Toni, Toni.” Elsewhere, he parses his tone down to piercing metallic smears.

Swiss by birth, Mengis’ background (as recounted in the liner notes) includes a long stint working out of the local scene. Adding to his mystique, he also works a part-time gig as a mountain guide in the Alps. One of his stated goals is to upend the customary framework of jazz as a soloist’s art and return emphasis to group dynamics and interplay. His knotty “Suzie and the Ponies” deposits Mengis’ brass in a lush ballad setting that starts as tone poem, but soon grows legs and muscle on another swirling vamp-centered rhythm and leaves the gentle balladry behind in a dust cloud of rising dissonance. The middle section detonates into a full-on stadium-worthy fusion flare-up, as fret master Flo Stoffner fires of shard after shimmering shard into a seething backdrop of gurgling Geezer Butler bass and trip-hammer drums. Morphing personalities once again piece ends with a display of tight contrapuntal horn play that exudes a chamber music delicacy. The disc’s two other pieces follow similarly incongruous roadmaps littered with detours and diversions. All occupy enough temporal space to ensure a generous running time for the album.

This one took me a number of spins to warm up to, mostly because the relentless restlessness of Mengis’ music seemed overwrought at first. But I definitely appreciate his energy and willingness to let his fickle muse dictate both direction and end result. His chosen sidemen are all worthy of admiration as well, and will no doubt be making their own marks inspired by Mengis’ lead.

By Derek Taylor

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