Program notes for the Kalmanovitch/Maneri/Warren/Herbert/Quartet

My program notes for upcoming performances with Huw Warren, Mat Maneri and Peter Herbert, in which retrospection solves the problem of what to write about a program of improvised music. 

This project was born out of my frequent collaborations with Huw Warren at the Summer School of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Huw was a friendly presence my first year, a decade or so ago. Idon’t remember how it was that we came to perform together at the tutors’ concert, but I think I might have angled for it.

Years before that, while I was still an undergraduate at Juilliard, in the heydey of ‘alternative’ music, I had toured with an acoustic trio called the blackgirls. In the long hours driving between Midwestern college towns, we listened to music. We’d all fallen in love with 'Some Other Time', a 1989 recording of jazz standards by the great English folksinger June Tabor. Huw, Tabor’s longtime collaborator, played on that record, and I recognized his name from the liner notes that I’d unfolded and folded into the cassette case many times.

That album was in constant rotation in our tour van, and aspects of its sound are still embedded in my memory of the Midwestern landscape.* They’re embedded in my musical self-concept, too. Tabor took familiar songs and stripped them bare, making them stark, new and true. What I took from that recording was the permission to approach jazz from my own, distant, perspective as a classical musician.

Like the others in this quartet, Huw is a musician with many feet: one foot planted in jazz, another in classical music, another in free improvisation, and still more feet in a dozen other musical locations. It’s commonplace these days to speak of the genre-crossing musician. But it’s still rare enough to meet the musician who resists the urge to force an easy accord, and chooses instead to reveal music’s intricate differences. Difference gives strength to beauty, and a sense of its inevitability.

Huw is that rare kind of musician, and it’s the generosity of his musicianship that made our first performance graceful and powerful for me. Our rapport onstage led to pints offstage, and to friendship, and to more performances and many more pints over the years. When Huw and I discussed extending our Guildhall collaborations into a formal project, it took us a matter of moments to agree on our collaborators: my fellow violist, Mat Maneri, and the Austrian bassist Peter Herbert.

Mat Maneri was among the first musicians I met when I first moved back to New York in 2004. Our first session lasted for hours: a great generous stretch of music and conversation and discovery that hasn’t yet stopped. We share an obvious sympathy, not just for the fact that we hold the same (still rather rare) instrument, but also for the fact that we share the same, deeply held, sense of what it means to be a musician.

Huw brought Peter Herbert to our quartet. I asked him to recall their first musical meeting. Huw wrote to me, “The thing that was immediately apparent was the instant connection, the ease in which we could move from one musical territory to another. He obviously has a huge technical resource, but it’s always in service of the music.” So Peter is that rare kind of musician, too.

The music you’ll hear tonight will be largely, if not entirely, freely improvised. Working with such intuitive improvisers, this seemed a natural choice to Huw and me. But in the context of writing notes for a concert program, it occurs to me that it’s a choice that merits a few more words. 

I have no composers, dates, or historical notes to contribute. In their space, let there be silence. The silence that precedes unborn music is an exquisite one. Suspended in it is every possibility, including the possibility of failure. In the musicians who hold that silence then plunge into sound, I see the model of the perfect human response.

*Also in heavy rotation were Nirvana’s 'Nevermind' and Big Star’s '#1 Record', and a host of other things I’d never heard before: our tours were my parallel musical education.