Michael Mantler: “Jazz Is Classical Music Now”

by Martin Longley –

The self-titled 1968 double album by The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra attains the highest reaches of the music, majestically combining the strongest points of spontaneous improvisation and pre-ordained strategies. The Austrian-born Michael Mantler was responsible for composition, organisation and production, shaping and framing free-form solos by the absolute greats of that era, not least Cecil Taylor, Pharoah Sanders and Larry Coryell, all of whom remain high in the jazz Firmament.

A few years ago, Mantler was burrowing around in the old scores, in the process of digitising his catalogue. He decided to embark on a mission of taking the original, idiosyncratically-scribed charts, and re-calibrating them with the intent of imposing more control on their realisation. Effectively, he was facilitating the ease of those old pieces being reproduced in a new light by a young ensemble, making the notation much more specific. The original recording is terrifyingly intense, but much of its content relied on the explosively instantaneous creativity of its soloists. Now, Mantler felt the need for a version which could be performed with tighter structure behind its improvisatory spotlights. He also unearthed some charts which had never been performed, subjecting them to a similar modification.

At the end of last year, ECM Records released Mantler’s Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Update, featuring the Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band and radio.string.quartet.vienna, from Austria. It features a live recording of the 2013 premiere of these Updates, during a three-day residency at the Porgy & Bess club in Vienna.

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Now, Mantler and Nouvelle Cuisine will be appearing on the second day of the Moers Festival, making their first appearance since the premiere run. Mantler has a pair of other festival dates booked for later in 2015, but these will feature other big bands rather than Nouvelle Cuisine. “The idea was that the music was rewritten in a way that it could be easily repeated,” he says, from his home in France. “In the original charts, there was a lot of unusual notation. It would have been difficult to do that again. Now, theoretically, I could send that music to any big band, and any conductor could get it played. I don’t really need to be there. I’m not really a conductor any more. I wouldn’t want to conduct it. I’m more of a supervisor, and participate as a soloist.” Of course, Mantler would ideally prefer to be present, trumpet in hand..!

Now that he’s a septuagenarian, Mantler has been ground down by the mechanics of the music business: “I am finished with actively seeking things, because it’s absolutely useless to try and get something like that. All my life, I’ve tried to contact people, to approach concert promoters, festivals. It’s fucking useless! So, if someone’s interested, and they want to do it, they call me…” Fortunately, we have him at the Moers Festival..!

The live recordings were radically edited in places, and Mantler also rejected certain pieces that he decided he didn’t like any more. The initial preparation of this updated material was lengthy and costly, but now Nouvelle Cuisine is primed to move swiftly, as the foundation work has already been completed. Christoph Huber of Porgy & Bess assisted with the logistics, and is also supporting Mantler’s next compositional endeavour. He’s writing music for a new project in September, for a chamber orchestra, with a French singer, woodwinds, brass, string quartet, percussion, piano and guitar.

Back in the day, it was the October Revolution, prompted by trumpeter Bill Dixon that acted as an initial breeding ground for many of the later participants. “We had a place where we held these concerts, in the building on top of the Village Vanguard. This was what was necessary at the time, to play this kind of music.”

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Mantler was in his early twenties at this point, and all the conventions of free music were completely un-formed. Nearly five decades later, the desired approach has changed. “I didn’t want to repeat it, to play old music again,” he says of the 1968 compositions. “A piece of music changes every time you play it, a little bit, particularly in this music.”

Mantler sees himself as a painter, applying fresh layers to an unfinished canvas. “They have a lot of leeway in what they can play, but they don’t have so much leeway in how long they can play. It’s tightly contained in the essence of the piece. There’s no endless solo going on: in the old days of free jazz this was much too excessive, and it could get boring with a soloist going on and on: now, they know what it’s going to be, so they should structure their solos accordingly. There’s a little bit of leeway in some places, where it’s up to the conductor, who can, if something’s happening, let that continue to happen. He can do that, but not that much.”

The opening update on last year’s albums was one of the re-discovered obscurities. “That was one that was never recorded,” Mantler remembers. “From 1963, but this was quite extensively re-worked, so the original served as a springboard to go on, and some of the old ones were quite drastically changed.”

Young players now are customarily the product of an intensive musical education. “Nowadays, everybody’s extremely proficient, also in terms of history, and they can play pretty much anything. All of them are classically trained, and could play classical music as well as jazz, and do switch quite easily between these. That works very well for me, because the music goes back and forth in these areas, so it’s very useful for me.”

It’s become a radically different beast, compared to the JCO of the 1960s, with Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Gato Barbieri and company. “They were mostly jazz musicians, not necessarily fantastically technically educated, but that all worked out, of course, because of the music. Nowadays, it requires people who have mastered their instruments, in a way, to play it correctly. Jazz is classical music now. The musicians are trained to play it all, and know it all. Whether that is good or not is another question…”

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