Sarah Manning is to the alto sax what JD Allen is to the tenor: even in a world of rugged individualists, she stands out. Lots of artists doll themselves up, tone themselves down and smile sweetly for the camera for an album cover shot. Manning scowls at you from the inside of the cd booklet for her new Posi-tone album, Harmonious Creature. Her bright, defenestrating, Jackie McLean-esque tone, angst-fueled crescendos and stunningly uneasy tunesmithing also set her a step ahead of the pack. Her previous 2010 Posi-Tone release, Dandelion Clock, was that year’s underrated gem. It may be early in the year, but her new album Harmonious Creature threatens to be the best of 2014. Her chromatically-fueled edge brings to mind Kenny Garrett; her moody compositions compare with Garrett and Allen as well. This new quintet session is an ambitious and slashingly successful move into the increasingly crowded chamber jazz arena with Eyvind Kang on viola, Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Rene Hart on bass and Jerome Jennings on drums. Manning is playing the album release show at I-Beam at 8 PM on Jan 25 with a slightly altered lineup featuring the reliably electrifying Alli Miller on drums.
The opening track, Copland On Cornelia Street, starts as stately waltz, brings the guitar in, lingers on the turnaround and then Manning works some morose magic over Goldberger’s brooding resonance. It picks up with a sunbaked Goldberger solo over a dancing, whirling rhythm. Did Aaron Copland find his epiphany in the West Village? He was a Queens guy – it’s not out of the question.
Tune Of Cats echoes a famous Coltrane riff before the group takes it over Jennings’ careful, tumbling pulse, Manning’s utterly casual phrasing contrasting with the relentless intensity of the melody, her tone more smoky than usual. Floating Bridge, an austerely bright jazz waltz, has Kang echoing Manning’s kinetic lines, the bandleader teasing the listener with flitting motives over Jennings’ imperturbible washes….and then sax and viola go back at it.
Reharmonized jazz versions of rock and country tunes can leave you gasping for oxygen, but Manning’s cover of Gillian Welch’s I Dream A Highway stakes out atmospheric, Frisellian big-sky territory. Goldberger’s pointillisms against gently unfolding sax and viola fill the vast expanse up to a ridiculously psychedelic, ambient outro that pans the speakers. Later in the album, they take a similar approach to Neil Young’s On the Beach, but at a glacial tempo that Manning finally cuts loose and blasts straight through once the final “get out of town” verse hits, the band following her searing lead to the point where any atttempt to get back into ballad mode would be pointless.
The naturalistic Grey Dawn, Red Fox blends allusions to the baroque and simmering exchanges of voices into a precarious narrative that grows more anthemic as it shifts course: this animal is on the lookout for something far more dangerous. If Manning is to be believed, the Radish Spirit guards its ground closely, with a tight, somewhat frosty cameraderie from the whole group, Manning and Goldberger taking it into the shadows before Hart rises to the foreground and pulls it back. The enigmatically titled Three Chords For Jessica emerges from Hart’s solo chromatics to a haunting, elegaic, gorgeously Middle Eastern-tinged grey-sky theme. Don’t Answer To The Question returns to waltz tempo with some understatedly wicked push-pull between Goldberger, Jennings and Kang. The album ends with a counterintuitively warm guitar feature, What the Blues Left Behind.