Four years ago, up-and-coming alto saxophonist Sarah Manning marked her arrival to the NYC scene with her first album with Posi-Tone, Dandelion Clock (2010), and it made waves. She impressed as both a performer and composer with this record, and it led me to believe that even more ambitious things were in store the next time around. Inspired by a fellowship in composition at the McDowell Colony, that promise came to fruition: Harmonious Creature marks real artistic growth for an artist who was already striking her own path.
Sarah Manning crafts unconventional songs for this album, so it made perfect sense that she went a little beyond the ordinary for her instrumentation, too. Employing an all-new backing band, Jerome Jennings plays drums, Rene Hart is on bass, Jonathan Goldberger performs on guitar and Eyvind Kang mans a viola. Kang, who’s blended in well on many a good Bill Frisell record does the same for Manning, transforming the harmonics of this record to match the open, esoteric compositional style of Manning.
Manning, whose tone and phrasing is not too hot, not too cold but just right, sports a vibrato rather similar to Kang’s as when they intertwine on “Copland On Cornelia Street,” and when Kang hands over the solo reigns to Manning during “Radish Spirit,” it’s barely perceptible that the lead went from a viola to a sax, they both share a sweet, soulful expression.
The performances go hand-in-hand with Manning’s musical conception. She creates figures that make small, unexpected turns but always resolve. The mystical ballad “Radish Spirit” proceeds in that manner, as does the darker “Tune of Cats,” made unsettled by Jennings’ restless drumming underneath. Even when it swings (“Floating Harmony”), that eccentric approach to chord progressions makes the song stand out. “Don’t Answer To The Question” is episodic, sometimes stormy, and features another nice Kang solo, but also a stinging rock-jazz solo from Goldberger.
Speaking of Frisell, “What The Blues Left Behind” is similar to the folky side of Fris, a side of him that often finds Kang present to help carry out as he does here for Manning. Even Goldberger’s guitar solo is sort of like Fris, but with sharper edges.
Focusing on her expanding composing skills, Manning still made room for two covers. Though they’re not hers, the choices are just as offbeat as the originals. She selects the title song from Neil Young’s brilliant On The Beach album, turning Young’s ragged blues into spectral textures from Goldberger, a raucous steady beat from Jennings and a disturbing drone from Kang. Manning paces her solo like a rock guitarist, even gets gritty and primal like Young has been known to get on guitar. Manning undertakes the rustic, lazy melody Gillian Welch’s “I Dream A Highway,” and channels Welch’s vocal through her alto. Kang and Goldberger complement her with a ghostly backdrop.
All put together, Harmonious Creature doesn’t even feel like a jazz record per se, despite that all the elements of jazz are present. And that’s the real triumph of Harmonious Creature. Sarah Manning seems to be seeking to achieve a certain kind of harmony, feel and improvisation, not a certain kind of music. She achieved that and in doing so, offers something that breaks free of artificial constraints.
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