Alto saxophonist Sarah Manning‘s fourth album, Harmonious Creature, is out now on Posi-Tone (buy it from Amazon). Manning’s patient, thoughtful phrasing—reminiscent of Charles Lloyd—is matched on the album (which contains eight originals and covers of Gillian Welch‘s “I Dream a Highway” and Neil Young‘s “On the Beach”) by Eyvind Kang‘s droning, precisely tuned viola, with a rhythm section of guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, bassist Rene Hart and drummer Jerome Jennings keeping things rock steady, whether they’re swinging hard, as on the fiercely boppish “Floating Bridge,” or gently swaying, as on the album’s final track, “What the Blues Left Behind.”
Instrumental tone is crucial to the music on Harmonious Creature. Manning herself has an affinity for long notes and slowly unfolding phrases, and her alto rarely if ever heads into the piercing range popularized by Ornette Coleman; she’s got a mellow, caramel-like sound. As a co-lead instrument, Kang’s viola doesn’t just harmonize with the saxophone, though there are plenty of unison lines that combine jazz and folk into a kind of eerily lonesome music perfect for soundtracking indie movies about murder in the woods; toward the end of the group’s interpretation of “I Dream a Highway,” a soft noise-drone rises slowly beneath Goldberger’s guitar, reminding listeners that Kang has worked with avant-metallers Sunn O))) as well as in jazz contexts. Goldberger can shift back and forth between conventionally jazzy leads and hazily reverbed background chords as necessary. Hart’s bass has a barbed twang; he plays it like he carved it himself. Jennings’ drums are tuned for sharp snapping and metallic ringing, as befitting the sharp edges created by the front-line instruments’ interactions. At times, he adds an almost martial beat to pieces that might otherwise drift away. Everything coheres in a clean and organic manner—no one is drowned out or overmatched.
Harmonious Creature is a unique, even slightly weird album; it’s definitely jazz, but there are elements of hillbilly music, Jewish music, modern classical, and more. It’s a unique statement from a composer confident in her own voice and wise in choosing collaborators to realize her ideas.
Stream “Copland On Cornelia Street”:
Manning answered a few questions about the album, and her approach to music-making, via email.
The pieces on this album span a fairly broad range—”Copland on Cornelia Street” feels derived from folk music more than jazz, for example, while the Gillian Welch tune, “I Dream a Highway,” is very bluesy and “Floating Bridge” is pretty aggressive and very “jazzy.” Were these all written together with an eye toward making an album, or are they pieces that came together one at a time and were collated?
I still think of albums as conceptual rather than collections of pieces, and so I definitely wrote the music for the album with the idea of it being a larger work in and of itself. For me, the unifying thread is the instrumentation—the combination of alto, viola and guitar create a myriad of possibilities that do have a bit of a dance into other genres that comes organically. In addition, my studio at the MacDowell Colony, where four of the pieces arose in October of 2012, was in the dense New Hampshire woods. With all sorts of creatures around me as I worked, including a barn owl that swiveled its head at me while I was under its tree, blues and roots and folk seeped in. “Copland on Cornelia Street” was one of those pieces, and had to be written, since I was working in a studio that Aaron Copland himself occupied in 1956! I think he left some bright wide intervals lying around in there.
There are some strong elements of drone in this music—as a composer, are you more of a fan of long tones rather than quick, boppish phrases?
Well, long tones are the foundation of my existence. As a saxophonist, I practice them almost as a meditation, with a tuner set to a foundational pitch and with incense and Oolong tea. As a composer right now I’ve been very focused on texture which lends itself to sonic landscapes without a lot of busy phrases. As a player I do always strive to add more faster lines into my vocabulary, but I don’t want to force them with so many mathematical formulas. When I was younger, when I listened to Charlie Parker or John Coltrane I was drawn to the pyrotechnics, but now I’m drawn to the things they leave out. Rather, how they balance the pyrotechnics with musicality and deep expression. I’d rather say too little than say too much. Clearly, this is contrary to my speaking style. Ha.
Eyvind Kang is based on the West Coast, so obviously this can’t be a working band in the traditional sense. How did these musicians come together, and how much rehearsal and time together did you have before recording?
You know, even if we all lived on the same block it would be just as difficult to have a working band. Everyone needs to put food on the table so with dwindling venues most players are going to work wherever they need to which takes priority over the concept of a band. That said, there are certainly opportunities to tour with musicians, regardless of where they live. For this project, I’d been playing with Rene and Jerome for about a year. Heard Jonathan through a Zion80 show at the Stone and some crazy texture he was creating caused me to play some harmonics I didn’t even know I could play and I thought, this is the right guitarist. I’ve always loved Eyvind’s tone and was writing the music with it in mind until I got to the point where it didn’t make sense not to work together. We had a couple rehearsals and a show and then it was into the studio for a day. This kind of total immersion is cathartic.
The harmonies between your saxophone and his viola are very compelling in a way that two horns might not be. What made you decide that was the sound to go for on this record?
Sound is the major thing that drives me as a player, and the perfected tone of Eyvind’s viola is very similar to my timbre on the alto. When I listened back to studio takes, I almost couldn’t tell us apart a couple of times. So I think it’s an intriguing draw for the ear as if there was another alto made of wood and string. I’ve always been influenced by the sound of Bill Frisell‘s record Quartet which has Eyvind, Ron Miles and Curtis Fowlkes, and so that sound was something I had in mind. But when we started playing together, the extreme accuracy of intonation and purity of Eyvind’s sound brought my own tone to a different place that was really thrilling and challenging to explore.
There are no jazz standards on this album, but you did record a song by Gillian Welch and one by Neil Young. What inspired those choices, and how much work did you do on those tracks to bring them into line with the rest of the disc?
Producer Marc Free always likes the artists on Posi-Tone to include a couple of “standards,” which he defines as a bridge to an audience who may know the tune and as a result find a way to your own compositions. He wants those tunes to be authentic representations of what the artist listens to, and these two songs by Neil Young and Gillian Welch were ones that have obsessively occupied places in my headphones. Both of the “arrangements” of these tunes were more of a loose idea of shape. The results were improvised and so it’s really a question of taking the band sound and applying it to the tunes rather than doing any real “work.” With “On the Beach” we did a take that was more structured and it didn’t really work. Eyvind and Jonathan’s eerie soundscape, coupled with Rene and Jerome driving the rhythm forward, just took on a life of its own and the tune became more of a deconstruction. Though actually, the form is still there and Rene’s referencing the melody in the bass at the very end.