The improvising violist Mat Maneri recalled a conversation with his ECM Records producer, Steve Lake about the nature of music. “
“He thought it was all religious and I said, ‘No, it can’t be that.’ But there is something sacred about that stage and your relationship with the audience that once you’re onstage,” Maneri told me by phone last week.
There’s something sacred about the music that Maneri and his quartet will offer at BOP STOP Wednesday in a concert presented by Cleveland’s essential New Ghosts organization. Drawn from the violist’s latest recording Ash (Sunnyside Records, 2023), the music is a memory project that casts an oneiric spell that is simultaneously elusive and completely absorbing.
“These are memories and skewed memories and distorted memories and emotional memories and things that you can’t quite define, and you don’t even know what they are,” Maneri said. “It’s like a dream that you can’t quite recapture.”
That sounds like a project born of the pandemic, and Ash was recorded October 2021 “in a big giant room with masks,” Maneri, 54, recalled. “But what happened was that I had spent eight months with my mother.
A trilogy in progress
“I was in France and then everybody’s wearing masks. I flew to New York, and Mother had a heart attack. Everything got shut down and suddenly I was taking care of her for eight months. That’s where the memories really started, childhood and just dealing with a lot of issues and interesting things.”
Though much of the music on Ash was written during the pandemic, the recording is part of a trilogy that began with 2019’s Dust, a project Maneri described as “about the intangibility of certain things, qualities that you try to capture and like dust, it floats in the air. It’s around us all the time, but you can’t quite grasp it. It covers you, but it doesn’t.”
Maneri conceives the third installment, Mist, as “a little bit more of a reconciliation to look into the future. I’m looking for joy through sorrow or elation through fatigue.”
Important musical partnerships
Both Ash and Dust feature an extraordinary quartet. Original bassist John Hèbert was unavailable for this tour and Brandon Lopez, who thrilled audiences at May’s Re:Sound festival will join two musicians with whom Maneri has developed a deep bond.
In the case of drummer Randy Peterson, that bond extends to the beginnings of Maneri’s career on the humming 1980s Boston scene. “He was one of the best bebop drummers I’ve ever heard,” Maneri said. “When I say that to people who hear him now, they’re like, You’re kidding me; he doesn’t sound like bebop at all. I have to counter with, yes, he does. He just worked on it for years and has developed his own thing.”
That thing recalls the mysterious, almost ritualistic approach of Paul Motian while somehow not sounding like a recreation of it. “Just a magical drummer who taught me so much about music,” Maneri said.
The violist’s connection with pianist Lucian Ban is more recent, but no less deep, though it happened almost by accident. Ban went to his native Romania to record. When the ensemble’s cellist was unable to make the date, Maneri flew in to cover the part on short notice and with no rehearsals.
One piece, “Malincolico,” began with a completely improvised piano and viola duet. “The chemistry,” Ban told me by phone, “was extraordinary. I said after the concert, we’ve got to play duo and luckily, we did. Mat freed me up a lot, both in terms of my playing but also my composing. It’s become one of my most important musical partnerships.”
“We’ve become like tightest friends,” Maneri said of the pianist with whom he has performed and recorded often in duo settings. “We have a system that we enjoy each other’s company. If we have a little time off, we like saying let’s do something. We actually like being together.”
That’s a good thing given the rigors of the road. “I’ve been on some really rough tours where you’re up until two in the morning and the lobby call is at four. You drive two hours to a plane and wait in line for two hours and fly four hours there, then set up a soundcheck and then you’ve got to play and have a dinner afterwards at 11 at night when you’re just exhausted and want to sleep,” Maneri said. “Nobody in the right mind would want to travel the way we do.”
And yet, that interval onstage can create a redeeming form of magic. “You’re concentrating on the energy from the audience and your energy to give to them. It’s a circle and it’s a lovely, lovely thing that makes it worthwhile.” In the heat of performance, the indignities and irritations of the traveling musician’s life become a memory, reduced to ash.
Mat Maneri Quartet, Wednesday, Oct. 11, 8 p.m., BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, tickets available here, and Thursday, Oct. 12, 8 p.m., City Gallery, 1503 State St., Erie, Pennsylvania.