November and December tend to be fairly quiet for new releases as our collective attention turns towards the festive season. Indeed, I doubt whether I would have known of Myele Manzanza’s latest album if it wasn’t for, of all things, an ad that popped up in my Facebook feed. Qualms about the evils of data sharing to one side, on this occasion I was thankful for the heads up. As you can tell from our 2016 end-of-year charts so were the rest of the team.
Manzanza’s debut, “One”, was originally released in New Zealand in 2012 before being picked up and given a wider distribution by BBE Music in 2013. “One Point One”, as the name suggests, is not an entirely new project, but an iteration stemming from the creativity ideas and musical vision expressed in the original. It’s a live recording of Manzanza’s first show in the US, featuring tracks from “One”, several covers and the odd original thrown in for good measure. The intention had only been to capture a live video of the song “City of Atlantis”, but on listening back to the whole set Manzanza felt it was strong enough to release as a long player.
Manzanza was formally schooled in Jazz, but has an outlook that extends well beyond this into hip-hop, beats, dance and electronica. “One” summed this all up nicely, but it’s definitely a studio production and one that needed adjustments to work live.
To help translate this into a live experience, Manzanza brought together fellow Kiwis, Mark de Clive-Lowe (keys), who’d played on the album, and Ben Shepherd (bass) to form the core trio. The addition of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s Quartetto Fantastico (Chris Woods and Paul Cartwright (violin), Peter Jacobson (cello) and the man himself (viola)) is a masterstroke as their sound adds further depth and texture.
The album begins with “A Love Eclectic”, the bait that Facebook used to lure me in in the first place. It’s a take on “Acknowledgement” from “A Love Supreme”, with viola leading the way instead of saxophone, surrounded by shimmering waves of sound from piano and drums. The drama and energy it gives off creates a great opening statement.
Later on, Atwood-Ferguson’s lead works even better on another jazz classic, the Bobby Hutcherson number “Montara”. This tune, a favourite of Manzanza’s, perfectly highlights the symbiosis of the old and the new; it’s classic Blue Note, but it’s also been reworked by Madlib. Drums replace the metronomic percussion of the original, the soothing sound of the strings stretching out and taking wing. It’s a wonderfully sensitive, warm moment.
“Absent Fade”, another of the string pieces, features an energetic solo from Mark De Clive-Lowe on piano that builds and builds. I’ve tended to think of Mark outside the Jazz genre, but it’s clear from his playing on this album that he’s got what it takes.
“7 Bar Thing” is the first of the tracks from “One”. In it’s original form it’s an out-and-out dance floor tune; this version retains all the vitality, with forceful drums and heavy bass, but pushes it a bit more into jazz funk territory, with some nice piano fills.
“Circumstances” gives Manzanza a chance to show us what he can do before the interval. Throughout this track and the album as a whole his playing is on point; punchy and driven where it needs to be, open and more communicative at other times.
The second half opens with a Theo Parrish cover, “Love is War for Miles”. Like “7 Bar Thing”, Manzanza’s arrangement maintains that sense of direction and purpose of the dance floor, whilst adding colour and variety to the melody.
The album ends with “City of Atlantis” featuring the whole group, plus Nia Andrews and Charlie K on vocals. Both strings and keys echo like recorded loops, only with more emphasis and tension. It’s a fitting climax to an enjoyable and varied album.
Myele Manzanza is playing at the Archspace in East London on 13 April.