PREMIERE \\ First Word Records’ Myele Manzanza returns with ‘Itaru’s Phone Booth’.

28th May 2019

Drummer, composer and producer Myele Manzanza is back with a new album and its leading single ‘Itaru’s Phone Booth’ is here to preview on Supreme Standards. 

‘Itaru’s Phone Booth’ is a contemplative track; anticipation and urgency lead the mood. This is a delicate yet forthright composition, which will particularly spark the imaginations of Jazz-heads. Inspired by the true story of a phone box following the Japanese tsunami and earthquake of 2011 (read below to find out more), ‘Itaru’s Phone Booth’ is a thought-provoking piece. Guided by his growing experience with the piano, Myele approached his third album with renewed eyes for his primary instrument, the drums. 

Myele’s new single marks the dawn of his third album, ‘A Love Requited’; pre-order the album here. Released via First Word Records this June, it features award-winning Australian bassist and long time musical collaborator Ross McHenry. It’s also an album that serves as an introduction to some of New Zealand and Australia’s sharp, young instrumentalists. 

Featured on the album is NYC based pianist Matthew Sheens (John Pattitucci, Cecil McBee, Ross McHenry Trio), alto saxophonist Jake Baxendale (Antipodes, The Jac), trumpeter Ben Harrison (Dave Douglas, Horns Of Leroy), trombonist James Macaulay (The Lagerphones, Epic Brass), multi-reedist Jason McMahon (The Shaolin Afronauts), flautist Adam Page (NZSO, John Psathas, Noel Gallagher), guitarist Django Rowe (Wizard Tone Records) as well as keyboard contributions from longtime collaborator Mark de Clive-Lowe (Ropeadope Records, Mashibeats), Brenton Foster and Jack Strempel.

To mark the premiere of ‘Itaru’s Phone Booth’, we talk to Myele about the album’s process, including a trek up Mt WhoAmI?. 

\\ What are the main themes behind ‘A Love Requited’? Did they change as you went through the writing and recording process? 

If I was to summarise the main theme of the album in a soundbite, I’d say “it’s the process of getting over my own shit!”

More broadly, the efforts of making this album were essentially a tool to detach from stressful or difficult situations or moods that I was going through and try to make sense of them, whether that be struggles with personal, familial or romantic relationships or struggles with my relationship to music and career… in regard to themes and motivations for making it, it was deliberately inward looking, rather than say a party album, or a major political statement.

So for example, with the piece ‘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, not connected to any phone line, 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 as time went on his phone booth became a place where people could go to talk to their loved ones that passed away. Some of it was kids telling their deceased parents about how they made the soccer team or that they’ve been diligent with their home work, and other times it was adults struggling to communicate complicated feelings to their husbands or wives who were taken away suddenly.

The story made me reflect personally about the value of life, what I wished I could’ve said to people who’ve passed away and things that I should say but struggle to bring up with people who are still here. I thought the story of the phone booth was a beautiful poetic image to tie those ideas together, and the piece was very much inspired by that.

 \\ It sounds like moving away from the drums to song-write at the piano has been a fairly new experience. Did you approach your drums differently once you’d been through that journey?

Yes, absolutely. In fact it’s safe to say that developing myself as a composer has been critical to my own sound as a drummer. Whilst practicing on the instrument and learning from the greats is important, I feel that I’ve been getting a lot closer to a distinctive approach to the drums over the last few years primarily because when I’m composing my own music I’m actually setting the framework and environment for my drumming to exist within.

If I can elaborate a little more on this – one of the biggest mountains that any artist has to climb is “Mt. WhoAmI?”. What is my sound, my vision, my perspective, my identity as an artist? That mountain is full of difficult terrain, cliffs that are very easy to fall off of and avalanches ready to just crush you when you least expect it. For the longest time, I tried scaling Mt WhoAmI? by trying to work harder. Practice practice practice. Get faster, more accurate, more competent, more versatile, more technique, more complexity, more competitive etc etc. and while I did make some gains in my ability, I often got crushed by avalanches and fell down cliffs. I wasn’t necessarily getting closer to anything truly unique. After a while of this I somehow clicked that I am who I am. Whatever my unique musical identity is must already be there, because only I could possibly have it. It’s not something that I could find from books or records or externally. And it’s not something I could really tap into by “working harder”. In fact if anything it would need an almost opposite approach. Rather than working harder at it, I needed to get out of the way of it. Give some space for it to emerge rather than trying to smash my way into it.

 At the time, so much of my identity was tied up with the drums, so I thought I’d just put that aside and be a beginner again at the piano. That gradually led to composing more and as the compositions developed and I started playing them with other musicians, the drum ideas just started to naturally emerge as a response to the music, so the work became more about creating environments for my identity to emerge and exist within. So while perhaps people would still see me as a drummer first and foremost, the work that went into the music around it has both given me a comfortable place to shine as a drummer as well as – hopefully – convey something to people that’s more meaningful than “look at my fancy drum skills”

\\ Tell us something that you’d like the rest of the world to know about Australia and New Zealand’s Jazz scene? Is there anything under the radar or misinterpreted?

 I think to be honest I’d want the rest of the world to know that the jazz scene EXISTS down here. There’s some serious talent that given the right light would smash it on the world stage. In that sense it’s been great seeing how the UK scene has been making moves lately. I think the collective strength, savvy media placements, marketing and (I assume) government funding around some international initiatives has helped elevate some of those musicians who have most likely always been there but not necessarily had a light shined on them. There’s something there that all scenes away from the main commercial hubs of the world could learn from.

In saying that, I think the best place to start for jazz artists down under (aside from me ha!) would be Rattle Records. They kind of cross between jazz, classical, Taonga pūoro and sonic arts type stuff, but they’ve always been committed to putting out original independent music with a focus on the art over trying to make quick bucks, and they’ve been in the game for almost 20 years so their catalogue runs deep.

Main photo credit: Michael Hobbs 

Check out the Supreme Standards podcast; Myele Manzanza talks about the impact of Ms Lauryn Hill’s music

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