Goodbye Poppa Joe (First Movement)

Micro, Erik Kerr & Joe, Framingham, MA

I first met Joseph Gabriel Ester Maneri in the late ’80s when his son Mat began playing with the world jazz group Natraj, with whom I was playing bass. Joe was like no one I had ever met before, or since for that matter. I had always been attracted to musical mavericks and lunatics – people like Harry Partch and Don Van Vliet aka Captian Beefheart – and Joe was the closest I had come to such genius and raw, create-your-own-world-from-scratch originality. Plus he looked like the snowman from Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer and was about as jolly and life-affirming an individual as one could hope to meet.

I became one of the moths who were attracted to Joe’s ever-burning flame and began to spend as much time as i could at his Framingham home, which seemed to be a never-ending hang, where folks drank coffee and talked about music and played music at all hours of the day and night. His lovely wife Sonja would bustle about, taking care of the real world,  like was everyone fed and watered, and leaving Joe to his more otherworldly one, one of spirit and  holy communion with the ineffable. His laugh was just about the most glorious sound I had ever heard, and it would ring loud and clear and often. And that voice of his…as classic as Miles or Satchmo or Orson Welles. He took me under his wing as he did all of the other bright-eyed moths, and I was honored to be asked to play in his group along with Mat and drummer Randy Peterson. It was the most challenging musical environment I had yet experienced, and remains to this day some of my deepest, take-me-out-of-my-comfort-zone music lessons. I can’t say I “killed it”, but I tried to keep up with him and endeavored to absorb all of the information that flowed out of him like lava from Mt Maneri.

Over the years I spent a lot of time at his house, rehearsing with Mat for Natraj or Persona or later on, House of Brown (in which I first met D’Elf drummer-to-be Erik Kerr), and though I wasn’t playing with Joe’s group any longer I would still linger after hours for a “Joe hang”. He would usually come down to the basement to check out what us youngsters were up to and make comments and suggestions, many of which would just leave us with our mouths hanging open, trying to comprehend the profundities and idiosyncratic logic that was his and only his. I fried the cones of a lot of speakers in that basement and popped many a blister on my fingers, mostly due to Joe’s cajoling and insatiable energy. With one of his many horns in hand, he would always be ready to sit in and coax us to try and keep up with him. I couldn’t believe how lucky Mat was to have such a hip dad, though for him it was no big deal, just Joe being Joe.

Joe was all about Love. Love, and Soul, if the two are actually different. He wanted you to play with soul rather than control, although the highest thing one could aspire to was soul control. As lofty and spiritual as he could be (and he was a deeply religious man) he always had an air of utter unpretentiousness about him. He was as earthy and real as could be, at the same time being entirely unreal, like some star stuff come to earth for a time and made, for a brief time, into human form. It seemed as if his body was never his friend, but the twinkle in his eyes belied any difficulties his mortal form may have given him.

When I finally got around to putting a band of my own together years later and Club d’Elf emerged out of the black mists of chaos, I started trying to figure out a way to get Joe involved. Mat had been playing with the band from the beginning and was open to bringing his Dad down, so we finally hooked it up for a show at the Lizard Lounge. Anyone who has seen the band knows that I do a lot of conducting, using hand gestures and signals as a way of directing the players through the music and cueing parts, but with Joe there was nothing i could do, or would want to do. How could i put myself in the position of trying to direct this man, who with eyes closed and horns to lip or voice unfettered and calling to the spirits, was deeper into the zone than i could ever hope to be? I relinquished any control I had over the music and would, along with the other players,  just ride the wave that he created. The other players understood  Joe’s unique place in the pantheon, him being the spiritual grandfather of the band and deserving of the respect one pays to the Elders.

This video was shot at our first trip to NYC, when D’Elf played the Knitting Factory on 4/20/00. John Medeski had been a student of Joe’s at New England Conservatory in the mid 80’s and held Joe in great esteem. I knew that they had never played together since John’s graduation, and I looked forward to making this happen and witnessing the magic that would occur when these two finally got to play together. Mat, Brahim Fribgane, Erik Kerr & myself filled out the rest of the band and the show went so well that we ended up releasing it a few years later on Kufala Recordings. Joe’s vocalizing in this scene from the song Jungle Adagio never ceases to give me chills. Even when not playing Joe still lead the charge, always being totally present in the moment and tuned into some deep energetic source.

This one came from a couple of years later when we played the last gig of a tour that took us down as far as Atlanta, at the Mercury Lounge in NYC on 3/31/02. The touring band of Medeski, Mat, Brahim, Mister Rourke, Eric Kalb & myself were joined for this show by Joe, something we had all been looking forward to during the run. Brahim had taught us a Gnawa song called Challaban, and Joe added his tenor stylings to the mix.

Two of my favorite memories of Joe:

In late ’99 I got it into my head that a nice line-up of the band would include then-David Bowie guitarist Reeves Gabrels along with Joe and Mat. Joe and Reeves had never met and probably never heard each other’s music (although Mat was a big Bowie fan and Joe may have heard some sounds wafting through the house), and while on paper it looked kind of unlikely, with the Rock Star guitarist playing with the Microtonal Mad Man, but that show yielded some amazing music. Some of it wound up on our first CD, As Above: Live At The Lizard Lounge, with the last track called Divine Invasion. It was an improvisation that Joe began as i ended was to be the final tune of the night. Joe didn’t think so apparently, and launched into a soliloquy on his clarinet, joined after a minute or two by Mat. Their duet gradually gave way to the whole band joining in, and the energy rose into a crescendo of heart-aching beauty and intensity, and then just as quickly died away into silence, with the final sound being Joe’s laugh. I will always treasure that moment.

Micro, Joe & Mat at NEC's ceremony honoring Joe

On one of the occasions that we played Club Helsinki (which sadly closes this Monday) in Great Barrington, Joe joined a band that also included Mat, John Medeski, Brahim Fribgane & Erik and myself. Our friends the Zukowski’s put us up at their lovely home in nearby Otis, and Richard, a world-renowned practitioner of Hoshino Therapy, a form of deep skeletal-muscular acupressure, had set up an appointment to work on Joe the following morning. We were all staying in the clinic, which is a beautiful Japanese-style structure with walls made of rice paper and sliding doors, none of which allows for much sound-proofing. Basically you hear anything that is going on upstairs or down from anywhere inside. We awoke to Joe’s exhortations as Richard worked on him, crying out in that familiar way of his and saying to RZ, “Oh! Oh!!! You’re like Beethoven! Bach! Oh! Ohhhh!” It was the funniest thing, and we were all in tears.

I love you, Joe and will miss you so much on this earth.  I will continue to take what you have given me and try to do something worthy of making you laugh that laugh of yours. Those of us fortunate to have been touched by you have been left a legacy that we will have to reckon with whenever we hold instrument in hand or lift voice in song. May your pain now be eased and may you travel safe, now that the star stuff of which you were made returns to The Source.

To end this I’d like to include a poem that Erik Kerr wrote for Joe. His words say what I wish that mine could, and I think Joe would really dig this.

For Joe

Prelude to bliss and you sprung up, prelude to a kiss.
A wild, unwieldy beast of a plant; a fragrant ragamuffin of a weed –
infectious and giddy and brooding and troubled.
Sown widely in love,
Behold! The fields you have planted have grown up to greet you!
On earth, your voice caught the current of the stream,
carried the wind with Funk so deep: Ruach HaKodesh.
Deeply rooted, singing, wounded,
stretching, calling, culled from Stone.
Speaking cleverly in riddles, unknown tongues
from laughing lips and mischief-eyed dancing stars;
adventurous and cantankerous, provoking us
to taste and see.
Unless a kernel of wheat dies…
And so you have, planted in twelve-tone rows,
before our unbelieving eyes,
wishing once more to hear Your microtones.
You swashbuckler! You rogue prophet! You swinging trickster!
Disabling disability, now you play the head!
Blowing over new changes and new forms! New sounds! And new worlds!
Clouded over eyes now crystal clear,
while we cry glasses full of tears!
And you play on and we play on and Life plays on.
And the bitter is sweetened somehow
by the remembrance of you,
sealed with a kiss,
a prelude that never dies.
Nobody laughs
but everyone smiles.
Farewell for now!
Farewell, my friend!

– Erik Kerr

~ by delfblog on August 28, 2009.

4 Responses to “Goodbye Poppa Joe (First Movement)”

  1. Absolutely beautiful tribute. A sincere thank-you for writing and sharing it.

  2. I knew Joe just briefly, through Jerry…and loved him, anyway. Beautiful rendition of his complete surrender to the music – as you say, his “deepness in the zone” allowed him to play with an “energetic force” unparalleled. Videos are superb and Eric’s poem should be published.

  3. I know Joe from another side, unfortunately…

  4. Thanks Mike I miss him too. we share the same birthday and it’s not the same without him.

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