Al Maniscalco Quartet,
More in My Heart
(Jalkoda, 2003)

This album is close to mainstream. It's a little further out only because Al Maniscalco prefers more complex harmonies, so the up-tempo tracks feature frequent and unexpected chord changes. Maniscalco has the ear and technical skill to improvise with ease on these challenging changes, but the outing isn't entirely successful. I too often have the feeling I'm hearing a jazz exercise. The notes fit, but there isn't enough letting-loose. "10/12," one of the release's six Maniscalco originals, is an extreme example. The tune, like Dave Brubeck's delightful "Duke," is based on a 12-tone row (think Schoenberg). The difference is that Brubeck didn't realize it until after the piece was written. For Maniscalco it appears to have been an objective and the result is more clever than musical.

My favorite track is "Vela," a ballad by Davide Calvi. Pianist George Colligan solos beautifully. So does Maniscalco, on soprano sax, a better instrument for his economical vibrato than the tenor he more often plays. Colligan is strong throughout, though I wish he'd stuck to piano instead of playing Fender-Rhodes on about half the cuts. Bassist Jeff Reed and drummer Eric Kennedy complete the quartet and are exceptional. Kennedy is an unusually musical percussionist, adding just the right tasteful accents and rhythmic encouragement.

The saxophone offers the widest color range of any standard jazz instrument. Its fingering is pretty much the same from Kenny G's syrupy soprano to David Murray's rock-hard tenor or Gerry Mulligan's lyrical baritone. Beyond the type of sax, there are additional choices for sound quality. Many rock players use amplification. For a more aggressive sound, both rock and jazz musicians will use stiffer reeds and metal mouthpieces (rather than rubber or plastic). At the other end of the spectrum, the innovative Ornette Coleman originally played an all-plastic sax because it was all he could afford. He has continued to use one because he feels its sound is more expressive.

Lip strength and flexibility, breathing, vibrato and other less tangible elements complete the package. I have to admit, though many of my favorite jazz artists play the sax and I'm an amateur player myself, its versatile range includes a subset that can be annoying, or even chalk-on-a-blackboard grating to some listeners.

All of this is prelude to saying that I have a prejudice to overcome in listening to Al Maniscalco's technically skilled playing. I don't like a nearly vibratoless tone, especially on tenor. Not many tenor players have been successful while consistently playing without vibrato. The late Dexter Gordon comes to mind. (He may be best remembered for his role as an expatriate jazz-musician in the 1986 film 'Round Midnight.) Others, including Joe Lovano, will play without vibrato when they are after a particular effect, but for most it's a nearly continuous way to a warmer sound. It can be overdone -- think of Guy Lombardo's corny band from New Year's Eves past -- but for me, Maniscalco goes too far in the opposite direction.

I don't doubt the sincerity behind the album's title. More in My Heart has its moments and features fine musicians, but Maniscalco's writing and solo work are not yet strong enough to make this an exceptional release. And I might send him a Carmen Lombardo (or Sidney Bechet) recording for Christmas. Who knows, vibrato may be catching.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 13 December 2003