Icelandic Jazz Chess

“I look at the music as chamber jazz, with some progressive melodies” he says. “Much jazz from the golden era is the circle form—the same 32 bars repeated, with different soloists giving their opinions on the form, like poets writing about the same subject. This is more linear—the parts serve a certain purpose, and don’t repeat.”

Mikael Mani from Mikael Máni Trio’s Linear Chamber Jazz by John Rogers, The Reykjavik Grapevine.

Mikael Mani is a jazz guitarist born and raised in Iceland but moved to the Netherlands where he finished his Bachelor studies in 2018 from the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. Bobby is the debut release from his trio consisting of Skúli Sverisson on bass and Magnús Trygvason on drums. The album, consisting of ten tracks, was inspired by reading the biography of chess grand master Bobby Fischer.

As can be read in the opening quote at the top of the page this is chamber jazz music from the Smekkleysa label, though it would sit very comfortably on the ECM label, not mainstream jazz, either contemporary or from the golden age. The CD comes with a booklet containing a short text about the thought behind each track and its relation to aspects of Bobby Fischer’s life and while this is useful to have, does the music stand on its own without it?

The short answer to that question is yes! The opening track, Board Games, is a wonderful introduction to the album. The guitar playing is bright, brisk and clear. The bass complements throughout and the drumming anchors the track with subtlety. This style continues through the next two tracks and only changes when we reach First Impression of a Fragile Man, this is where the album moves towards soundscapes from the melodic approach of the opening tunes.

Track eight is the album title track and the song that inspired the concept for the album. Bobby is a very strong, emotive track that leads back to the melody driven themes of the opening tunes of the album. The final two tunes, Tie You Hopes Down and Down in the Well, reflect the change in fortunes in Bobby Fischer’s life at the time and bring the album to fitting close – Mikael Mani citing Haruki Murakami (author and jazz lover) as an inspiration for the final track.

This is, in my opinion, a very good debut from an exciting and interesting jazz guitarist. Mikael Mani allows the tunes he has written to breathe by not overplaying with too many notes. He has also picked his accompanying musicians with care and as a trio it works very well indeed: the bass and guitar blend beautifully throughout and the drumming is elegantly understated and a joy to listen to. I should like to hear this group live at some time in the future but for the moment I am more than happy to enjoy Bobby on CD.

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