Chuck Manning enjoys lending the distinctive flutter of his tenor sax to the service of any music he loves. So the relative conservatism of his current path looks like a cyclic tilling of his soil -- not a retreat from his longtime association with the Los Angeles Jazz Quartet, which was sneaky enough to layer its avantish substructures under a beachside cottage veneer. The veneer was a big part of the point, and Manning always found ways to give it texture.
So here was Manning, filling a gap in old pal Rocco Somazzi’s bistro calendar on short notice, and as usual he served up dinner music far above any level you’d expect. For the first set, his working quartet lacked pianist Jim Szilagyi (out on another gig), a situation that provided its own excuse for compare-and-contrast.
Manning has known bassist Isla Eckinger a long time; the Switzerlander’s a natural fit with drummer Tim Pleasant -- both swing like a summer playground. When Szilagyi joined for the second set, instantly focusing the rhythm section with a quick, gentle touch, his hands crowding each other for midrange-centered lightness, it was pretty clear that with this band, Manning was going for support rather than challenge.
A reasonable decision, since Manning constantly challenges himself. He leaped octaves casually on Clifford Brown’s midtempo bopper “Sandu,” conjured Sonny Rollins’ virile assurance on “I’ll Remember April.” And back-to-back turns on Monk’s jumpy “I Mean You” and languid “’Round Midnight” found him blowing bursts of harmonic condensation and bubbling out fast, subtle tonguing technique. He sounded, actually, like a combination of the main tenor men associated with Monk: the linear invention of Rollins, the slight overblowing touches of John Coltrane, the urbane swing of Charlie Rouse, leaving out only the long machine-gun sprays of Johnny Griffin. But none of those tenorists moved among stylings with such an unusual combination of smoothness and nervous energy. That’s why Chuck Manning is a lone ranger.
The Kenny Barron waltz “Ambrosia” opened the second set with a blissed-out godslurp mood, Manning’s stoned vibrato nearly subliminal. The quartet followed suit with the gin-and-vermouth sleaze of Frank Loesser’s “I Believe in You,” with Manning running down feathery arpeggios at microprocessor speed. The lone original was the Manning-Szilagyi tune “The Spiritual,” its portentously gloomy Slavonic intro giving way to a Pink Panther-style Big Apple blues; Manning dug deep into the gutter before hitting the sky with multiphonic shrieks, and Eckinger warmed up to a heart-massaging bass solo.
Manning’s got a new album, “Notes From the Real,” coming out next month on the Montreux label with the same band. He had to go to Europe to get the record contract, so the least you can do is go to Amazon.