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MICHAEL MANTLER - THE JAZZ COMPOSER’S ORCHESTRA UPDATE / ECM 2391                                                                                                                           player

In 1968, composer-trumpeter Michael Mantler recorded The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra. Originally released by the orchestra’s own imprint and reissued later by ECM, this classic, ground-breaking album featured Mantler conducting a large jazz orchestra that included some of the era’s iconic improvisers as soloists: pianist Cecil Taylor, cornetist Don Cherry, trombonist Roswell Rudd, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, guitarist Larry Coryell, saxophonist Gato Barbieri. In the process of digitizing his catalog, Mantler reacquainted himself with early scores, eventually envisioning fresh performances of not only this vintage material, but also including new versions of material from that period never previously recorded. With The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Update, Mantler has re-imagined his 1960s music for the 21st century, with the amplified radio.string.quartet.vienna added to the instrumentation along with the prominent electric guitar of Bjarne Roupé. They and the Nouvelle Cuisine Big Band of energized young Europeans, conducted by Christoph Cech, were recorded in these updated scores live at Vienna’s Porgy & Bess club in 2013. Just as the original did in 1968, the result sounds stirringly contemporary, brimming with dark majesty and a bright sense of sonic possibility.

An interview with Michael Mantler:

What visions for the future did you “hear” in your mind as you looked over the old scores for “The Jazz Composer's Orchestra” album?

    After having not listened to this music for a long time, I was impressed by how fresh and exciting it still sounded after all these years. It seemed that the music should be allowed to have another life perhaps, reaching a new audience that would probably never have known it. A recording would be the most logical outlet, and to perform it live would be interesting, of course; but given the commercial considerations of today’s music business, these ventures are generally impossible. The exception was the support from Christoph Huber at Porgy & Bess in Vienna, who did make it possible to rehearse, perform and record the project.

    Regarding the idea of an “update,” for me that implied an adding to and an improving of the original material. Sonically, I wanted to retain the original instrumentation, except for reducing the inordinate number of bassists originally used, seemingly no longer necessary. Musically, I strove to retain as much as possible of what still seemed agreeable to me about the notated elements of the scores, but in the end without any restriction imposed on myself as to changes that I felt necessary to make. Certain of the compositions ended up being almost unchanged, while some were so extensively revised that one could consider them almost as new compositions that nevertheless grew from the original materials.

    Sonically, another element that has of course changed drastically is that the new recording is vastly superior technically to the original, which was – although recorded at RCA Studios, one of the most advanced studios at the time – done on just eight tracks by engineers who had never heard anything like this music before.

Is there anything in particular that has changed about large-ensemble jazz (and free improvisation) today that necessitated this album sounding different than the original? Or is it just a question of the times and the musical personalities?

    I don’t think today’s large-ensemble jazz, or free improvisation, has much to do with it – I’m not all that familiar with the scene. I will say that on this Update album the performances are of a much higher technical and interpretative level as far as the musicians in the orchestra, with much more exact playing than in the original versions. As for the soloists, I deliberately chose mostly other solo instruments and personalities, in order to avoid a “re-do” and to achieve an “update.”

Has the ratio of composition to improvisation changed from the original album to the new one?

    Very much so. Even though the original idea was, even then, to control and somewhat limit what were, in my opinion, the “excesses” of free improvisation, I came to find that there was still too much of it. Over the years, I have generally come to favour integrating improvisation ever more with notated compositional elements by providing more specific materials and “surroundings” for the improviser, as well as the room to interpret written solo melodies in a fairly free manner. I hope that creates a continuity that melds improvisation and composition into one homogeneous work.

Did anything specific spur the prominent use of electric guitar and amplified string quartet on “Update”? And which of the musicians had you worked with before?

    I used the electric guitar as early as the original JCO with Larry Coryell and then ever since – for its power, its variety of sonic possibilities and its ability to “sing.” Bjarne Roupé, an exceptional guitarist, has been playing my music with me for two decades. A prime appeal of the new “amplified” string quartets, of which the r.s.q.v. is a prime example, is their versatility; this quartet consists of musicians who can play notated music of all kinds perfectly while also having the ability to play freely and creatively. As for other musicians, I’ve worked with alto saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig for many years, although mostly in the context of Carla Bley’s music. I found tenor saxophonist Harry Sokal and pianist David Helbock specifically for this new project, and they’re both wonderfully creative players, who immediately understood and interpreted the music without necessarily being influenced by the original versions.

What was the original aim of the Jazz Composer's Orchestra, and what feelings hit you when you listen to that original album? And what were your impressions when you heard this new group perform your updated scores?

    The original idea was to create an orchestra that would concern itself with presenting free jazz within a larger, more controlled orchestral environment. It was also a political and social institution created to enable creative artists to work unencumbered of commercial constraints. I still love the original album for its power and excitement and the absolutely exceptional improvising – to me some of the best playing ever by those original soloists. As for the updated versions of these scores, they made it possible for me to give the compositions a new life – and the recording expresses ideally how I feel that music should sound now.


Michael Mantler was born in 1943 in Vienna, where he studied trumpet and musicology at the Academy of Music and Vienna University. In 1962, he went to the U.S. to continue his studies at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
He moved to New York two years later, playing trumpet with Cecil Taylor, among others. With Carla Bley, Mantler formed a large jazz orchestra to perform new compositions, resulting in their first recording, Communication (1965).

In 1968, Mantler recorded the eponymous double album of his music with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, featuring soloists Cecil Taylor, Don Cherry, Roswell Rudd, Pharoah Sanders, Larry Coryell and Gato Barbieri. Although not appearing as performer on this album, from this period, Mantler can be heard as trumpeter on such key recordings as Carla Bley’s A Genuine Tong Funeral (recorded by Gary Burton) and Escalator Over The Hill, as well as Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

The problems of independently distributing the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra records led him to form the New Music Distribution Service in 1972, an organization that was to serve many independent labels for almost 20 years. In 1973, he started WATT WORKS, a new record label devoted to the music of Mantler and Carla Bley. For the label, he recorded the album No Answer, for which he wrote music to the words of Samuel Beckett voiced by Jack Bruce, and a subsequent string of venturesome LPs: The Hapless Child, with words by Edward Gorey and featuring singer Robert Wyatt (1976); Silence, based on the Harold Pinter play, again with Robert Wyatt (1976); Movies, with Larry Coryell and Tony Williams (1977); and More Movies, with Philippe Catherine (1980).

In 1982, Mantler recorded Something There with Mike Stern, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra. Later in the decade, the West German Radio Orchestra, France’s Orchestra of the Opera de Lille and the Danish Radio Concert Orchestra all premiered works by Mantler. He also released Alien with Don Preston, Live with Jack Bruce and Nick Mason, and Many Have No Speech, an album of songs in English, German and French based on the poetry of Samuel Beckett, Ernst Meister and Philippe Soupault that featured Jack Bruce, Marianne Faithfull and Robert Wyatt.

In the early 1990s, Mantler returned to live in Europe. Subsequently, several of his works were commissioned and premiered by an array of European festivals and orchestras. In 1993, ECM released his album Folly Seeing All This, featuring the Balanescu String Quartet and a setting of Samuel Beckett’s last poem for the voice of Jack Bruce. Mantler’s 1994 recording Cerco Un Paese Innocente, also on ECM, featured his Chamber Music and Songs ensemble with singer Mona Larsen interpreting texts by Giuseppe Ungaretti. The label also documented Mantler’s “sort-of-an-opera,” The School of Understanding and his orchestral work One Symphony. 

In 2001, ECM released Mantler’s Hide and Seek, an album of songs with words by Paul Auster, for chamber orchestra and the voices of Robert Wyatt and Susi Hyldgaard. The 2006 anthology Review (Recordings 1968-2000) traced Mantler’s unique musical path across selections from some three decades of albums for JCOA, WATT and ECM. The Guardian called the collection “a startling reminder of just how inventive Mantler is, working confidently across contemporary composition, jazz improv and progressive rock… Mantler deploys his raw materials with poetic intensity, but without artifice or pretension. This collection is too brilliant to ignore.”

In 2008, ECM released Concertos, featuring Mantler compositions for soloists Bjarne Roupé (guitar), Bob Rockwell (tenor saxophone), Roswell Rudd (trombone), Pedro Carneiro (marimba and vibraphone), Majella Stockhausen (piano), Nick Mason (percussion) and himself on trumpet. For Two, Mantler’s 2011 ECM release, comprised duets for Bjarne Roupé and pianist Per Salo.

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