Sarah Manning’s Quintet Airs Out a Great Album’s Worth of Tunes at I-Beam
When she was invited up to the McDowell Colony last year to compose, alto saxophonist Sarah Manning was not in a good place, she alluded between songs at her show Saturday night at I-Beam. But her time in the New Hampshire woods turned out to be exactly what she needed to reboot, and she showed off several of the kinetic, sometimes achingly intense compositions she’d come up with there, taken from her brilliant new album Harmonious Creature. Onstage, Manning’s tone is less brassy and more nuanced than it tends to be in the studio; attackwise, she went from a wail to a wisp and often back up again, precise and purposeful. For whatever reason, maybe because she has an album release show coming up at 8:30 PM on Feb 20 at Cornelia St. Cafe, this gig was more about tunes than pyrotechnics or jousting.
Bassist Rene Hart’s hypnotic, pulsing circular lines often held the center as drummer Allison Miller ornamented the songs with a misterioso, John Hollenbeck-like pointillism. What’s it like to watch Miller play quietly? Infrequent, let’s say – but she finally hit a long cyclotron rumble which was just plain classic, and worth the price of admission all by itself. Meanwhile, guitarist Jonathan Goldberger and violist Fung Chern Hwei alternated between resonant atmospherics and incisive solo passages. Goldberger used his sustain pedals for almost clarinet-like tone that built with the viola to a magical, enveloping mist on the night’s elegantly waltzing opening number, Copland on Cornelia St. Then Manning led the band with a hypercaffeinated drive through the bitingly catchy Don’t Answer to the Question.
Grey Dawn Red Fox worked a similar dynamic, Miller’s insistent implied clave paired with Manning’s dancing lines against a lingering grey-sky backdrop. Tune of Cats saw Manning airing out her lower register, Miller matching her unease, throwing elbows everywhere versus the rest of the band’s resolute calm. They worked a tight push-pull on the acerbic Radish Spirit and then backed away through a considerably more acidic reworking of Neil Young’s On the Beach. The enigmatic, brooding Three Chords for Jessica was a highlight, as was the second set’s closing number, What the Blues Left Behind. Manning explained it as an illustration of the flush of contentment – hopefully without your ears ringing too hard – that you get after a good set or a good night watching somebody play one. The long series of false endings at the end wound up this eclectic and intriguing evening on an aptly reflective note.