A CONVERSATION WITH MICHAEL MANRING

I met the guitarist Paolo Giordano in his flat in the steam room/city of Pescara last Summer and witnessed his mastery of string instruments first-hand in his living room. He said hearing his music wasn’t the same without Michael Manring playing bass. Maybe not the same, but it was so impressive alone that Michael Manring became an afterthought. That is, until we all entered a radio studio in Santa Clara and Michael’s fretless bass sounded off after the first few bars of Paolo’s intro to “lonely pathways.”

The first time I fell in love with the fretless bass was when I heard Jaco Pastorius on Heavy Weather, and hearing Michael brought back that loving feeling. I sat down recently with the man who first came to the world’s attention as Michael Hedges accompanist, also having shared musical space with Primus drummer Tim Alexander and Alex Skolnik in Attention Deficit. He also played in Yo Miles with Henry Kaiser, Leo Wadada Smith and Karl Perazza, and took bass lessons from the man, Jaco Pastorius.


the bob: Describe a bit of the beginning.

Manring: I was born back East and grew up around Washington, D.C. with a brief stint in Southern California between the ages of two and nine.

the bob: You started on the bass, and that’s still your main instrument [author’s note: he plays a bit of keyboards]. When did you get your first bass?

Manring: I got my first bass when I was ten. My brother played drums in a band and I started playing his friend’s bass when I was nine. My father’s family had a lot of musicians back in the day and my brother started playing drums when he was eleven. Dad was a clarinetist and a conductor back in Cleveland. I also have a sister that is into the old time folk music before bluegrass, and Irish music as well... So there was a lot of music around the house.

the bob: When did you begin to see bass playing as a professional outlet?

Manring: I was always into the bass and I remember thinking that’s what I wanted to do when I was a little kid, and about the time I was in high school it was all I thought about. In high school we were asked a lot about what we would do with our lives, and bass playing was the only thing I could think of.

the bob: What was the first music that caught your attention?

Manring: First, I was into rock n’ roll. Woodstock was the first album my friends and I got into in high school. We were into The Who, Jimi, Sly, all of that stuff.

the bob: Enwhistle never considered himself a bassist, he was a lead guitarist playing the bass. Were you attracted to his style?

Manring: I remember hearing Live at Leeds and not believing that he was playing a bass. It was just amazing.

the bob: Your playing travels all over the musical map. When did you start this?

Manring: I got into jazz early on, picked up string bass and played classical too. Played everything. All my friends played different stuff in the neighborhood. One of my childhood friends became the keyboardist for the Tom Tom Club and one of the guys was in Charles Mingus’s band.

the bob: What did you do after high school?

Manring: After high school I went to Berklee College in Boston and that opened my eyes to everything that was out there, destroyed my illusions. They had a great curriculum, but I was there for less than a year. I played in a top forty band at the height of the disco thing in the late seventies and we figured we’d be on the road for a summer, but we just kept going and I never returned to school. The gig ended up being fun for a couple of months and then it became tedious. I went back to DC and joined Natural Bridge, which was a fusion group that played all the time, and that lasted for a little while, but by the time the record was done the company folded and so did the group. In the eighties the fusion market collapsed [author’s note: faster than you could say Jan Hammer].

the bob: You had a brief stint in New York?

Manring: I moved to New York and while I was there I met Michael Hedges. I was doing freelance jazz gigs and met him in Baltimore at a dinner show. He was at the Peabody Conservatory studying electronic music or performance, I’m not sure which, and rolled into this restaurant where I was doing some solo stuff and we just really digged each other.

the bob: How long did it take before Hedges’s career blossomed?

Manring: It was kind of slow at first and he was playing at dives, but he lucked out and got the deal with Wydham Hill right when they were taking off and did the first record in 1980. I had never heard of Wyndham Hill at the time, but they became huge in the early eighties and working with Michael opened the door for me to play with a lot of different artists. For a few years we took pretty big package tours of Wyndham Hill artists on the road: Michael Hedges, Ackerman, George Winston, Alex DeGrassi and whoever else was around, and we got to play some pretty big places. We played Carnegie Hall, The Greek Theatre, and we broke the attendance record at Ravinia in Chicago.

the bob: How did you hook up with Jaco Pastorius?

When I moved to New York I did the starving artists thing and I was looking for whatever musical situation I could. With Jaco I was a big fan and followed him around a lot, going to his shows and whatnot. At the time Jaco was very disorganized and putting together very loose shows in New York. He would play with Don Alias and a couple of other cats, and play wherever he hadn’t burned. So I followed him around to different shows and since he needed money at the time, he offered to teach me some lessons. I would take lessons from him off and on because he wasn’t in good shape at all.

the bob: Did Jaco have good friends around him trying to get him out of his rutt?

Manring: Yeah, he had good people around him, he was just one of those self-destructive individuals, he was manic-depressive and was self-medicating with a lot of booze and drugs.

the bob: What was one of the more memorable times Jaco bailed on a show?

Manring: I went to one gig and he played two songs with the band, and then left Don Alias on stage for a drum solo and he played for twenty minutes, and after he was finished Jaco had disappeared. I waited a half an hour, but Jaco never came back.

the bob: Why did you leave New York and move out here?

Manring: The Wyndham Hill thing was going strong and I had my own record deal with them. All the other Wyndham Hill artists were in the Bay Area, and Michael was living near the office in Palo Alto, so I figured since I was coming out here at least once a month I might as well live out here.

the bob: From what I understand, New York can be a very frenetic place to live, very aggressive, and the musicians are not exceptions to that rule. How did your music fit into the New York state of mind?

Manring: My solo bass thing was more appreciated out here than in New York. In New York the standards were really high, which is good, but you have to fit into the different camps. There’s the acoustic jazz camp, the avante-garde camp, the classical camp, and there’s lots of resistance to one person exploring a lot of different musical territory. So I moved out here where the musicians aren’t quite as good, but for me the trade off was OK because people are open minded here and I have the opportunity to explore a lot of different music.

the bob: What was Michael Hedges like to work with?

Manring: He had this crazy energy about him, so something interesting would always happen at the shows or wherever we were.

the bob: What was one of those crazy experiences?

Manring: Wow, there were so many. I’ll try to think of one that’s not x-rated. One time we stayed in a Yurt community in Wisconsin, which was really strange, but we’d meet people that were on the fringes all the time: poets, painters, dancers, etc.

the bob: How did you meet Paolo Giordano?

Manring: I met Paolo at a guitar festival in Italy when I was playing with Michael Hedges and I really dug what he was doing, so when he asked me to be on his first record, naturally I said let’s do it.

the bob: you seem to have a musical connection with bald fingerstylists... After the tour with Paolo what are you doing?

Manring: I’m playing a lot of different shows, I’ve got another record coming out with Mcgill, Manring and Stevens. I’m going out to play at Newport Folk Festival with John Gorka, and some other things.

the bob: What about the infamous, enigmatic, Yo Miles record recorded a while back?

Manring: Yeah, we recorded a CD set with Yo Miles, I’m not sure how it will be released, but I talked to Henry [Kaiser] a few weeks ago and he seemed to have it mostly worked out. The album was recorded with Henry Kaiser and Mike Kenneely on guitar, Greg Osby and John Tchicai on saxophones, Steve Smith from Journey on drums, Tom Coster from Santana on keyboards, Karl Perazza from Santana and Zakir Hussein on percussion, Leo Wadada Smith on trumpet and some other cats as well.

the bob: Right on, Michael. I’m looking forward to hearing another round of sounds from you and Paolo. Peace.


the bob
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[Published on: 7/18/02]

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