Quarter Tone Voices: Cory Smythe’s New Language

Cory SmytheAccelerate Every Voice (Pyroclastic, 2020)

Cory Smythe’s new album is inspired by Andrew Hill’s Lift Every Voice (Blue Note, 1970) which combined singers with a jazz quintet. This wasn’t jazz singing. It was a seven-person choir pulsing with ’60s energy, singing lines somewhere between classical song and soul music. On “Ghetto Lights,” the soprano shrieks threaten to go off the rails. It’s a fitting addition to Hill’s brilliant run of late-’60s albums.

Pianist Smythe advances the concept by making the vocalists his entire band. That includes percussion by Kari Francis, who also served as the album’s vocal director. The voices sing articulated wordless syllables — and it’s all in quarter-tone staves, so even the music itself is speaking an unfamiliar language. The polish of the professional vocalists is crucial, an atmosphere of clean precision, even during improvised solos. (I’m reminded of Bay Area vocalist Lorin Benedict, who performs silky scat singing with the deliberateness of a written language.) The voices form the body of the music, with Smyth adding bass flourishes and high-register sprinklings.

The voices often don’t glide as they do on, say, Einstein on the Beach. It’s a function of the syllables, which in some cases seem crafted to create bumps and textures. Like the quarter-tones, they fit together in non-obvious combinations awkward to the unacclimated ear, even as they sometimes dip into recognizably “jazz” motifs.

To play those quarter-tone notes-between-the-notes, Smythe usee a MIDI keyboard propped on his piano, and of course the singers had to learn to hit quarter tones as well. (I have no idea how easy or difficult this is.) The MIDI keyboard is a setup that Smythe devised while working on a project with Craig Taborn. It uses the piano’s frame as a resonating board, just as the piano’s strings do, which seems to help the tones combine and shimmer, enhancing that “spectral” effect.

Smythe, in a “listening party” webinar and interview held by Pyroclastic, was reluctant to “oversell” his quarter-tone inner ear, saying only that he’s been dabbling in the 24-note scale and is still building an intuition for it. That said, Accelerate Every Voice was not left to guesswork; the music is heavily scripted. Smythe told the vocalists precisely which vowel sounds to make and gave exacting instructions regarding tone durations and even soloing. Smythe and Francis worked out rhythmic patterns for vocal percussion, adjusting the lines to fit Francis’ style and strengths. This rigor is at the heart of the music, building a ghostly Alexander Calder effect on two “Kinetic Wind Sculpture” pieces, or grinding out the repetition of an organic clockwork near the end of “Knot Every Voice.” Songs tend to be short, two to five minutes — but they feel longer, as they’re dense with motion and alien information.

The closing track, “Piano and Ocean Waves for Relaxation,” is a departure. Its 19 minutes of dark ambience seem to come from the sounds of (and around) the piano: isolated, echoing notes, wooden clacks, the buzzing of a resonating low string. Eventually the piano disappears and we are left with a shimmering resonance, slowly surging and receding.

That track is inspired by Annea Lockwood’s “Southern Exposure,” a performance piece in which a piano is slowly dragged away by the ocean tide. Hill’s Lift Every Voice had a political bent, and so does Accelerate Every Voice; it’s Smythe’s meditation on climate change. In that light, “Piano and Ocean Waves” becomes less relaxing. It’s about gradual background changes that build until they become too obvious to ignore.

Joe Maneri

I was sorry to hear Joe Maneri died this week, and even sorrier to note that I don’t know his music well. His 72-tone scale was evident all over his recordings, with the soured, squashed, off-key sound characteristic of microtones. That he recorded so often with his son Mat (violin, 6-string electric violin, and/or viola) is especially heartwarming.

I devoted a big chunk of the show to Maneri’s music. (Full playlist here.) Like I said, I’d never studied his catalog deeply, but I was grateful for the lightning tour through his late-blossoming career. Through releases on Leo, Hat, and ECM, Maneri became a strong presence in the avant-jazz community.

Maneri’s own Web site provides a good overview of his releases through 2005. I’ll subjectively supplement that notes from my own lightning tour. (Most of the photos link into Maneri’s discography page; click the label names for more specific info.)


….. Paniots Nine (Avant, 1998; recorded 1963) is a free-jazz date with heavy Klezmer influence and some gutsy, joyous soloing from Maneri. He hadn’t gone the 72-tone route yet, but you can hear that he was willing to buck the status quo with his solos.

It was Maneri’s demo tape for Atlantic, which turned him down for a recording contract. He wouldn’t record again for something like 20 years, having both rejected the music business and embraced the academic life at the New England Conservatory.

Source: joe maneri.com….. Kalavinka (Cochlea, 1989) is a trio set with Mat Maneri on electric violin (looking very ’80s glam in the sleeve photo) and Masashi Harada on percussion and voice. It’s a session that was recorded in one four-hour chunk and left on CD in the order of the performances. “Number One” shows off the squeaky, whining (in a good way) quality of the Maneris’ microtonal approach, in a calmly building improv. “Number Three” slowly builds in a reverent sort of peacefulness, a side of Maneri’s that I didn’t explore much during the show. To wit: I chickened out and played the active, radio-friendly “Number Four.”

….. Get Ready To Receive Yourself (Leo, 1995). This album was apparently KZSU DJ Klee’s first exposure to Maneri, and his review for the staff starts with, “Jeez! Where have they been hiding this guy?” The reaction wasn’t unique to Klee; because Maneri’s recording career began so late, he didn’t receive international attention until the mid-’90s and albums like this one.

Source: joe maneri.com….. The title track of Let the Horse Go (Leo, 1996) is a sturdy, meaty, 13-minute improvisation (Mat on violin, Randy Peterson on drums, John Lockwood on bass) that I didn’t think I’d have time to include. But “Is It Naughty Enough?” at half the length, provided the same kind of atmosphere, maybe a tad less intense.

source: ECM records.com….. Angles of Repose (ECM, 2004) puts Maneri into that echoey ECM sheen, and it works really well, especially with Mat’s viola putting up strong, resonating lines. The great European improviser Barre Phillips rounds out the trio, making for a strong set of improvisations (and standards, like “What’s New.”) I also played a track from Three Men Walking, the ECM album that teams the Maneris with Joe Morris playing delicate guitar.

Source: Jazz Times….. Because its songs all exceed 13 minutes, I saved The Trio Concerts (Leo, 2001) for later in the show, for a tour de force kind of moment. “Of Any Three” starts off haltingly, actually, but you later get to hear Joe Maneri bash away on the piano, which is something unique compared with the other CDs in our collection. The two discs represent separate sessions recorded a year apart, packaged together as a 2-CD set.

source: joe maneri.com….. Tenderly (Hatology, 1999) closed out the Maneri segments. Maneri never turned his back on his jazz roots and often included standards on his albums, even if the rest of the material was improvised. It’s interesting to hear the microtonal playing applied to a jazz standard like this, bringing out new harmonies while still keeping the same velvety feel. Takes some getting used to, but it makes for some nice listening.

(I couldn’t link directly to this entry in the Hat catalog, but click here and search for “Tenderly” to find it.)

source: thirsty ear.com

As a bonus, I played a couple of Mat Maneri’s own tracks. He was practiced in his father’s 72-tone scale, but he’s also well known for some interesting projects of his own.

….. Sustain (Thirsty Ear, 2002) was a particularly impressive album, where Maneri and an all-star cast, led by Joe McPhee on sax, blaze through some dense, energetic psych-influenced pieces. Mat’s viola gets the electric-guitar distortion treatment for some rocking sounds, and Craig Taborn‘s electric keyboards infuse a modern-day sound. Every other track is an unaccompanied solo featuring one of the five band members.

….. Fever Bed (Leo, 1996) is a trio date with Randy Peterson (drums) and Ed Schuller (bass). Both those musicians are certainly capable of keeping up with the whole microtonal thing (Peterson is on the Trio Concerts date noted above), but their role here, particularly on Schuller’s side, is to provide a jazzy backing to Mat’s violin soloing. It’s an intriguing mix of harmonies, and a rich sound.