“This album is really about the process of getting over my own shit,” reflects drummer, producer and composer Myele Manzanza.
His third long player, A Love Requited, hits physical and virtual shelves on 28 June via the illustrious First Word Records, recipient of Worldwide Awards’ Label Of The Year for 2019.
Bringing his compositional skills to the fore, Myele’s work is brought to life by a constellation of New Zealand and Australia’s finest young instrumentalists, and is produced with long time friend Ross McHenry. “[The album] is easily my most personal work to date and my hope is that beyond the music itself it may be of help to others, if only to say that you’re not alone in your struggle to make sense of the world”.
Bonafide settled down to talk to him after a run of gigs at Wellington Jazz Festival – you can also watch an exclusive video from Myele’s Surgery Sessions (recorded at NZ’s Surgery Studios) below, wherein he tackles Sonny Rollins‘ 1962 latin jazz classic Jungoso.
Hey! How was Wellington Jazz Fest? What did you get up to?
It was great! While Wellington’s a small city at about half a million people, the music scene here is really popping. The highlight concerts I got to be a part of was a toss up between a Jimi Hendrix meets Miles Davis concept gig, and a double drummer mash up with Aussie band Brekky Boy playing some Robert Glasper tunes.
As far as concerts I got to watch, Ambrose Akinmusire’s quartet was a pretty transcendent performance.
Do you still find challenges in performing live?
I’d say I’m at a point where my fundamentals are solid enough that I can perform at a competent base level, but there’s always a strive for excellence that I’m shooting for that requires real present-moment connectivity with the music.
Sometimes that focus comes easy and I can kind of rest in the music and let it happen, other times it’s harder to connect for all kinds of reasons, so for me the biggest challenge is more in the mind these days. Regardless of whatever mood or bullshit you’re dealing with, just being able to put that aside and bring the mind to the task at hand is something I’m always needing to work on.
The first single to drop from the A Love Requited LP was entitled Itaru’s Phone Booth. In promotion for the single, Myele explained the title:
“For Itaru’s Phone Booth, I was listening to a podcast about a man in a small Japanese town called Itaru, who had installed an old English style phone booth on his property as a place he could go and ‘talk’ to deceased loved ones. The town was almost totally ruined by the tsunami and earthquakes that rocked Japan in 2011 and over time the phone booth became a place where people could go to talk to their dead loved ones. Kids told their deceased parents about how they made the soccer team, or they had been diligent with their home work, and at other times adults struggled to communicate complicated feelings to their husbands or wives that were taken away.”
“The story made me reflect on the value of life, what I wished I could’ve said to people who’ve passed away and things that I struggle to bring up with people who are still here. The phone booth was a beautiful poetic image to tie those ideas together.”
The story behind Itaru’s Phone Booth is beautiful. What musicians would you speak to and what would you ask?
That’s a great question…
Miles Davis is the first one that comes to mind. The amount of courage it would take to make the kind of artistic shifts he made over his career and constantly push beyond his comfort zone is pretty mind boggling.
Keith Jarrett would be another one even though he’s still alive. I’d love to pick his brain about his processes and how he gets his head in the zone to play fully improvised concerts at the level he does
Can you tell us about the players who are on the album?
So my fellow First Word artist and long time collaborator Ross McHenry played bass and was a big part of the production process, both musically and in an ‘executive’ role, from financing through to the execution of each day in studio.
The other key player was pianist Matthew Sheens. A lot of my compositions were informed by a ‘what would Matthew do’ approach and I knew that his sound and approach would be critical to the artistic success of this material.
“A Love Requited is the first work I’ve done where I’ve overtly tried to connect the music to broader stories.”
The horn section was filled out with Ben Harrison on trumpet, Jake Baxendale on alto saxophone, Jason McMahon on various saxophones and James Macaulay on trombone, and additional keys n synths were handled by Brenton Foster, Jack Strempel and my good friend and mentor Mark de Clive-Lowe.
Cover art for 2013’s One and Myele’s debut First Word release, 2016’s OnePointOne (Live At The Blue Whale)
How has A Love Requited advanced your sound?
I think the biggest advancement for me musically was as a composer and arranger. My first album One was more me as producer / beatmaker, OnePointOne is more drummer / bandleader, but A Love Requited really put composition and arranging front and centre for me.
What were the main lessons you had being involved in music / on the stage as you were growing up with your father’s influence?
I think the biggest things were an early understanding of how rhythm worked. The difference between straight eighths and triplets. How emphasis on different beats made people feel and dance differently.
Also, and I didn’t really understand this ’til I was older, I was getting an understanding of the roots of rhythm. The African drumming style that my father played was very much drawing from the base of the family tree of modern rhythm, so it made it fairly easy to play lots of different styles of music because I got given the codes early.
Considering your exposure to music from a young age, why did you put off drums until the age of 14?
Yeah, admittedly it’s a pretty late start as far as professional musicians go. Initially I was learning guitar so I could play Rage Against The Machine riffs, but I started taking up drums and had a bit more natural talent there so that ended up blossoming more and became the thing I pursued. I can’t really say I put it off deliberately but it just took the right exposure to get me going.
From RATM and Deftones to Roni Size to the world of jazz – what events or songs were your key life moments?
I think if there was one single moment that made me know that music was where I wanted to go, it would have been the 2004 Tauranga Jazz Festival when I was about 16 years old.
From the Tuaranga Memories website, this image is from Nga Wahi Rangahau: Research Collections (formerly the New Zealand Room) located at the Tauranga City Libraries. It was part of a 2012 exhibition by librarian Stephanie Smith on the musical history of Tauranga.
They had a high school jazz competition that my school’s jazz big band entered. I thought I was hot shit on the time but I got exposed to other kids my age who were way better than me.
It was a wake up call that if I wanted to pursue music it was time to take it seriously, and it also was my first real exposure to jazz which has taken me down a long rabbit hole ever since.
You’ve talked about someone like Timbaland pushing drum sounds forward in the past. Who’s doing that now?
As far as producers go, for me it’s pretty hard to go past Kaytranada. He’s doing to house music what J Dilla did for hip hop how he’s de-quantized the rhythm in a way which feels really natural-but-off-kilter and has a distinctive swing to it.
As far as actual drummers, it’s hard to go past Chris Dave and Mark Guiliana as far as how they get their drums sounding, as well as their sheer virtuosity. I feel like there’s a real difference in drummers that came before and after them. If you want to understand the modern concepts around jazz drumming and how it connects to hip hop and electronica, you can’t avoid going through them.
What makes this album a more personal work for you?
A Love Requited is the first work I’ve done where I’ve overtly tried to connect the music to broader stories, whether in my life or in stories I’ve heard that resonate with me.
In lots of ways it was a form of therapy to write and put this album together as it helped me reflect on issues around relationships, career, family, etc and was a constructive way for me to try and deal with and get clarity on them. If I was to give you a single soundbite, this album is really about the process of getting over my own shit!
Why First Word for your new work?
I’ve had a relationship with First Word for a few years now. Initially through Ross McHenry’s projects and they also handled the release of my last album OnePointOne. The biggest thing that I’ve found with them is that they’re good honest partners to do business with.
It’s no secret that there isn’t a whole heap of cash in independent music but they’ve retained their integrity and commitment to quality, have offered me great support especially with the rollout for A Love Requited so far, and given me the room to retain creative control of the music throughout.
Admittedly, I’m very lucky to have found an international partner willing to take a punt on a jazz drummer from New Zealand and they’ve embraced me with open arms on back to back projects, so I’m looking forward to building further into the future.
Anything in the pipeline you can tell us about?
You’ll have to wait and see 😉