Innovation key to Manteca's staying power
Jazz ensemble plays intimate club shows at Toronto's Monarch Tavern on Tuesday and Wednesday.
ANDREW DAVID PHOTO
Manteca is set to release its 11th album on Sept. 24.
“Hey man, I love the opening,” Matt Zimbel told Doug Wilde a while back. The subject was the tune “Radio Noir,” destined to be the final of seven cuts on Monday Night at the Mensa Disco, the latest of Manteca’s 11 albums, set to be released Sept. 24.
“I love it, love it, love it,” bandleader Zimbel enthused for the benefit of Wilde, the group’s resident composer. “But just the opening. The rest I hate.”
Yikes. These would be expensive fighting words for today’s bands and their lawyers. But not for the veterans in Manteca. To the group’s long history — which includes some 100,000 album sales and stage-sharing with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis — there can now be added the words “calm and comfortable,” according to Zimbel. Once was, the band’s approach mostly meant “energy with speed,” he points out.
From its inception in 1979, Manteca has been something of a trendsetter as Toronto’s jazz connection to salsa, samba and other Latin-rooted, percussion-based styles. And with gigs at the hallowed Monarch Tavern on Sept. 17 and 18 — a “residency,” as such former jazz blasts are now dignified — the nine-piece ensemble is front-running again. It’s showing younger musicians how long-term survival is assured by having weathered egos as tough as leather.
Wilde, who doubles as the band’s pianist, took Zimbel’s criticism and ego-stroking in stride and began to rework “Radio Noir.”
“A lot of this new record comes from the fact I was a huge fan of Doug’s,” says Zimbel on the phone. “We started working on Monday Night three years ago. We’d send demos back and forth, shredding parts and rebuilding them and rebuilding them again. Some versions of the tunes are in fact the ninth or 10th.”
Wilde pitches in: “In the process that Matt and I have, we would describe the kind of tune we wanted” and head in that direction. “It was like having a brief to work with.”
Monday Night at the Mensa Disco — the title is Zimbel’s conceit about an imaginary dance hall for brains where they check your IQ at the door — serves to reintroduce the band. And it begins with the opening tune, “Mind Monday,” another reference to the high IQ Mensa society.
Beginning with a hint of the Manteca of old — a repeated simple, high-horn riff that might be found in an African dance hall song — the piece swerves in an entirely unexpected direction with the arrival of a bottomless bass note. It’s a gut-grabbing introduction to the band’s new “sonic world,” as Zimbel calls it.
Monday Night is personal where most earlier Manteca LPs are communal. “Carmen’s Way,” the second cut in, is named after a new street in Sault Ste. Marie, Wilde’s old hometown. “The street is not as pretty as the piece is,” says Wilde. The chaos-courting “Casserole” comes from Zimbel watching Montreal’s 2012 street protests from his home, “where people began banging their pots and pans,” he says.
“After 2007, when the band reformed after we’d gone through a cleansing period, we looked around at what was out there,” Zimbel says. “Manteca had always looked at what formed the musical foundations of other cultures, like salsa or samba. But in 2007, when we looked around we could see there were so many samba and salsa bands we realized we didn’t need to do that. That was our challenge.
“Bands around at the same time were doing projects. (Toronto guitarist) Michael Occhipinti did the Beatles. Others were looking do something on (veteran arranger) Gil Evans. But that kind of thing is not in our DNA. We are a composers’ band with a lot of great players. There’s a new sense of confidence here.”
It's shortly after nine Wednesday morning and Manteca co-founder Matt Zimbel has been up several hours taking care of business. The night before his nine-piece band rocked the Monarch Tavern, an historic and hallowed neighborhood public house tucked on Clinton Street in a leafy section in Toronto's downtown.
The Tuesday night performance was the launch pad for Monday Night at the Mensa Disco, Manteca's 11th album, recorded in three days with three-time Juno Award winning engineer Jeff Wolpert at Revolution Recording, one of the city's top-end studios that features a main salon that musicians such as Neil Peart describe as "the best sounding room we've ever recorded in."
Partner in the studio, Kim Cooke is at the album launch. He's as enthused about the new album as Zimbel is about the studio and has offered to distribute it through his boutique label Pheromone Recordings. The band has accepted the offer, which means, as of next week, Monday Night at the Mensa Disco will be available online as well as in better music shops across the nation.
Making records has changed a lot since Manteca launched itself in 1979, shaking up the jazz world with an infectious dancebeat of sinewy rhythms, insinuating melodies and musicianship that grabbed attention from fellow musicians as well as youthful audiences that, for the first time, were listening to jazz in a positive light.
In fact its been a wild ride, starting out on Ready, moving to Duke Street and then Justin Time Records. Thirty-plus years on, Manteca has learned to take matters in hand. Not because it wanted to necessarily. Several notable councils and foundations rejected the band's application to fund the new album. So they did it themselves, using the pledge funding site, Indiegogo. The goal was to raise $20,000 and the fans topped it by several grand more. With additional support from the Ontario Arts Council, the funds have been used to record the album and a couple of videos. Life is different these days. Fans funding and self-management. Julien Paquin at Paquin Entertainment continues to handle international representation for the band.
The album was recorded in three days, but the writing and arrangements took three years with Zimbel in Montreal zipping files back and forth with Manteca's pianist and principal composer Doug Wilde in Toronto. The two discussed their progress on Skype.
The catchy title is a Zimbel invention about a club where smart people go to dance and the doorman asks patrons to show some IQ at the door. "Mind Monday" opens the album with a feast of horns leading to a gentle interplay between the rhythm section components.
Manteca's new material broadcasts a strikingly smart maturity in the arrangements. Less identifiably Latino, this is jazz that is elegant, sophisticated but still has swing and is rich in melodic undercurrents that tease and capture the ear. It is also jazz that speaks to audiences young and old and Tuesday night caused a runway of attractive females to stand up and sway to the music like palm fronds in a gentle breeze.
The mood that night at the club was low-current electric. The audience attentive without being priggish, as is often the case at jazz concerts these days.
Zimbel is an exuberant showman, humorous raconteur, enthusiastic band-leader, superb percussionist, and mentor to fellow musicians. His leadership in the band is egalitarian, at least on stage-but when you have the kind of exceptionalism Manteca's five-piece rhythm section and four-piece horn line display, one can afford to be democratic. The latest addition is east-coaster Pat Kilbride whose bass playing led my partner at the club to comment that she had never heard anyone play as well before, and she has been listening to jazz since before she was a child and still camped out in her mother's womb.
I will leave saying more about Monday Night at the Mensa Disco to the review Kerry Doole will post next week. I will, however, add my piece in saying that Monday Night at the Mensa Disco deserves more than insider awards and enthused reviews that speak to a narrow reach of people. It's the kind of record Polaris needs to shine the spotlight on and CBC MusicBack Stage Pass and Radio 2 should get behind.
As for the show, Manteca needs a pass that leads straight to Koerner Hall and then find itself in full glory in amphitheatres and major festivals next summer. Anything less would be hiding brilliance from plain view.
The video made for the Indiegogo pledge-funding drive.