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Labyrinth by Jacám Manricks

Australian-born multi-reedist Jacám Manricks' debut CD, "Labyrinth," is one of those all-too-rare recordings: thoroughly sublime from start to finish. It captures a unique and highly personal musical vision with a direct emotionality that is sorely lacking in today's fashion-conscious world. The music is technically excellent yet viscerally swinging, atmospherically moody, yet earthily joyous. Music this good is also the hardest to review intelligently, as it can only be diminished by any effort to describe it. My first impression was that Manricks' compositional style, while equally informed by modern classical music and cutting-edge jazz, is nevertheless a ripple emanating from the boulder called M-BASE that Steve Coleman threw into the musical pond a couple of decades ago. After a few listens, I am not so sure about this. Another reference point would be the darkly mysterious music of Manricks' mentor, the world-renowned pianist Mike Nock, whose pioneering work I have enjoyed since the early 70s. There's a pensive mournfulness and probing intellectuality to "Labyrinth" that recalls some of the best work on the ECM label, as well. Yet, Manricks' icy alto saxophone on the title track really brings Coleman's work with David Holland to mind. Tyshawn Sorey, a drummer of near-singular skill, grace and finesse, has incorporated M-BASE-like compound funk and Latin rhythms into his playing. Yet, he seems to glide over Manricks' rocky, convoluted compositional terrain as much as he does drive the pace and tempo. Dynamically understated, his fills and rhythmic patter are not mere filigree, but are central to the development of each composition. I don't think I have heard a more musical drumming performance in 40-plus years of listening. This is some jaw-dropping stuff!

Besides Sorey, Manricks' band has a couple of other ringers in it. Guitarist Ben Monder, one of the most exciting young guitarists in jazz today, is a personal favorite. His steel-sting acoustic unexpectedly lights up the somewhat melancholy 'Move' in a particularly lovely way. As is his custom, Monder's playing is alternately understated and wildly over-the-top. His solos on 'Cloisters' and 'March and Combat' feature manic swirls of notes played with a deliriously distorted tone to dramatic effect. The latter solo is particularly spine-chilling, as it emerges from behind a haze of orchestral strings. On the molasses-slow, creepy-sounding 'Rothko,' Monder's oddly-spaced tones and electronic effects provide a subtly chilling backdrop to Jacob Sacks' pointillist piano. On 'Aeronautics,' perhaps the most conventionally jazzy piece on "Labyrinth", Monder's fluid approach and pure, ringing tone bring modern-day masters such as Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie to mind. Though he plays a largely supportive role here, bassist Thomas Morgan - presently the bassist in Abercrombie's quartet - provides the harmonic and rhythmic linchpin that ties each of these pieces together. His spot-on time makes Sorey's flights of percussive fancy, so central to Manricks' music, possible.

The one musician besides Manricks with whom I wasn't familiar prior to hearing "Labyrinth" is pianist Jacob Sacks. After hearing the CD's first track, 'Portal,' I am certain that Sacks - like Manricks - is a major musical talent. The young pianist is a featured soloist throughout "Labyrinth", and is so prominent on some pieces that, had I not known it was Manricks' CD, I would have thought the pianist was the leader of the group. Like Manricks', Sacks' playing exemplifies the best of two parallel musical worlds: the discipline and exacting rigor of classical training, and the fluidity, spontaneity, and soulfulness of jazz. Sacks works closely with Sorey, and together they take some of Manricks' pieces to completely different places. Their particular brand of telepathy is most apparent during and after Sacks' solo on 'Cloisters.' Also admirable is the ebb and flow of the drums and piano accompaniment to the leader's alto solo in the same piece. The level of artistry here is second-to-none.

Two tracks on "Labyrinth", 'Micro-Gravity' and 'March and Combat,' also feature accompaniment by a small chamber orchestra. On these pieces, Manricks' resourcefulness and creativity as an arranger are most evident. 'Micro-Gravity,' underpinned by a martial-sounding snare drum figure, is inspired by Arnold Schoenberg's 'Five Pieces for Orchestra' but reminded me a tiny bit of Ravel's 'Bolero.' References to classical music in jazz often exact a heavy price on the listener, yet 'Micro-Gravity' is outwardly quite lovely, with sweet solos by the leader (on alto) and Ben Monder over the tense, pensive strings and drums. Perhaps the CD's most ambitious composition, 'March and Combat' also recalls 'Bolero' and Gil Evans' orchestral arrangements on Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain." Manricks' angular melody floats over a repetitive figure played by drums, strings, and horns which then gives way to Monder's unexpectedly wild guitar solo. As Monder's solo climaxes, the focus shifts to Sacks whose amazing two-handed solo (backed by Sorey's and Morgan's deeply grooving rhythmic counterpoint) gives way to the leader's alto sax. By now, the piece has taken on a completely different character, as the strings and woodwinds swirl back in over Manricks' increasingly fervid improvisation. A new motif emerges, capped by Sorey's superb drum solo, with which the piece ends.

Words simply don't do Jacám Manricks' "Labyrinth" justice - this is some of the most amazing, imaginative, and bracing music I have heard in the past decade! If this is where jazz is headed for the 21st Century, please count me in!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Jacám Manricks
  • CD Title: Labyrinth
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: Manricks Music Records
  • Tracks: Portal, Micro-Gravity, Labyrinth, Move, Cloisters, Aeronautics, March and Combat, Rothko
  • Musicians: Jacám Manricks (alto & soprano saxophones, flute, alto flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, shells, compositions), Jacob Sacks (piano), Thomas Morgan (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums), Laura Arpiainen, Ann Marie Bermont, Kiku Enomoto, Garry Ianco, Brooke Quiggins (violins), Marla Hansen (viola), Maria Jeffers (cello), Amie Margolies (French Horn)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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