I take back my statement last week that Nick Mancini looks as if he’s asleep while playing vibes; a more accurate description would be that he looks as if he just rolled out of bed. There he was, once again unshaven, unshorn and T-shirted, whipping out all kinds of wild imaginings that somehow also came off as disciplined. And he clearly was not drowsing, unless he was mumbling in his sleep; he’s one of those musicians (like Cecil Taylor and Monk) whose restive mandibles act as wordless intermediary between brain and hands.
Mancini is a physical player. Not limp-wristed, his arms maintained a certain muscular tension no matter how fast he was burning. One of the few tricks he showed in common with Milt Jackson was the way he occasionally hammered a powerful blacksmith clout on a single note -- more than volume, he got sustains and metal-twisting overtones that don’t happen any other way.
His approach to harmony was magical, too. With two mallets in each hand, he selected anything but the obvious chords, stroking the plates and working the pedals so the notes melted into one another. Fun to watch as well as to hear.
Mancini’s bandmates could’ve been forgiven if they didn’t measure up. But they shone; if he hadn’t told us he picked them up on short notice, we never would have guessed it. (He crossed scheduling signals with his fine regular crew -- pianist Otmaro Ruiz, bassist Dan Lutz and drummer Nate Wood.)
The first to stand out, after a beboppy vibraphone introduction, was pianist Mahesh Balisooriya on the Monk/Denzil Best tune “Bemsha Swing.” Here and throughout the set, Balisooriya demonstrated his own distinctive and effective combination of biases: He leaned hard on the bop, frequently calling up avantish chromatic runs to tie chords together, but avoided sounding overintellectual by couching his flights in a ripe, bluesy touch and just a hint of pretty, Tynerish left-hand intervals. Never heard him before; glad I did.
Also new to me was Kal Draco, a crisp drummer who showed how to hold back with light ticks on the high-hat, then let go with swelling press rolls on the snare; he could even hint at a jazzy take on disco when called upon. It was inspiring to see Draco and bassist Edwin Livingston squinting intensely as they motordromed through the changes. I’ve seen Livingston before with Leni Stern, and knew he was a quick study and a super technician, but his solos this time made me sit up -- the articulation, the coherence of his ideas, the cleanness of his arco work when he pulled out the bow and etched double-stop runs down the length of the neck.
The material ranged from diverse Mancini originals -- the antebellum magnolias of “Pasdadena”; the sweaty dancefloor bump of “Funktionality” -- to a sheaf of Miles and Shorter tunes. But it hung together thanks to a consistently challenging yet ear-friendly approach, leavened with Mancini’s party-time ease in talking to the audience, who seemed to be about 80 percent musicians.
Our host, Rocco Somazzi, said that every time he’s booked Mancini the dinner-reservation list has gotten longer. I guess ears ain’t obsolete after all.