Mantis captures the stranger, sharper side of Anders Svanoe

The saxophonist-led trio celebrates an abrasive new album with an April 29 show at Arts + Literature Laboratory.
Photo: The three members of Mantis are shown looking down from a mezzanine. From left to right: Brad Townsend, Nick Zielinski, and Anders Svanoe.

The saxophonist-led trio celebrates an abrasive new album with an April 29 show at Arts + Literature Laboratory.

Anders Svanoe has spent the past six years on a series of albums devoted to his instrument of choice, the baritone sax. The Madison-based musician recently put out volume 5 of his State Of The Baritone series, El Dragón, which draws on his time both playing and composing for Latin jazz outfits. Each installment has centered the baritone in a variety of lineups and stylistic modes, offering a prolonged and convincing argument for the instrument’s versatility. The other album he’s put out in 2022, the self-titled debut from his band Mantis, departs from the theme, if not the instrument. Here he dips into lean and aggressive pieces in a trio with drummer Nick Zielinski and bassist Brad Townshend (both members of ARP Of The Covenant). The three will celebrate the album’s release with an April 29 show at Arts + Literature Laboratory. Svanoe has also returned to booking his New Music Series at ALL, recently bringing musicians including Jon Irabagon and Mai Sugimoto into a disarming Sunday-afternoon setting; that continues with a May 22 show from drummer Frank Martinez.

Mantis gives us a prolonged listen to the more aggressive side of Svanoe’s playing. Townsend and Zielinski match him with bountiful dimension and texture. On “Intersection,” both Svanoe and Townsend lean into their instruments at angles of maximum friction—sharp squeals we don’t often associate with the baritone (Svanoe loves making it sound not like a baritone), bowed bass swells that evoke a rusty-hinge door swinging back and forth. The jaunty handclaps on the next track, “Skedaddle,” sound almost sinister in context. 

This album thrives on ambiguity, bleeding between styles and moods. If it’s firmly rooted in jazz it also explicitly draws on Svanoe’s love of heavy metal. If Svanoe is building these pieces around definite, composed themes (the full trio shares composition credits on the masterfully eerie “Hotshot”), he’s also determined to bend them into oblique improvised corners. Don’t get comfortable (or uncomfortable) in any one mode for too long. “Rosy Cheeks” takes you into baritone-as-suave-tenor mode, a welcome if almost misleading turn in the album’s sequence.

“Meeting Up” winds its way between taut ensemble passages and unaccompanied solos, and a captivating square-off between just Zielinski and Townsend. You can hear in that passage, shortly after the track’s halfway point, how adept the two are at spiraling into an almost maddening kind of suspense, setting up the music to veer off in any number of possible directions.

“Monk In The Land Of Oz” bends the playful dissonance of Thelonious Monk into a sense of foreboding. The trio stretches and compresses its rhythmic feels from one section to the next, never quite menacing but not reassuring either. Svanoe brings the piece to an almost gentle conclusion. How are you supposed to feel? Probably off-balance, generally.

Much of Svanoe’s State Of The Baritone series guides listeners through its variety, and that’s the point. Track titles and clear stylistic references let you know that Svanoe is exploring what the baritone can offer in Latin jazz or joyous Charlie Parker-style exuberance or even a tragic lament. This works not just because he has the flexibility you’d expect of a working jazz musician, but also because his commitment runs much deeper than a series of clever stylistic jumps.

Each of Svanoe’s ideas gets the time and the setting it needs, whether that’s the boisterous “double trio” of 2018’s 747 Queen Of The Skies or the multi-tracked saxophone arrangements of 2019’s Solo Flight. Mantis is certainly varied and patient, but asks something very different of the listener. It takes some letting go of the familiar, even when the familiar is apparent. Mantis wants to get you wrapped up in strange neither-nor realms where the possibilities are both thrilling and unnerving.

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