Shelly Manne: "The Three" & "The Two"
Manne's three, 32-bar solos (alternating with Freeman's) might be dubbed, "To swing or not to swing." Wielding brushes, sticks, and malletssometimes switching from one to another in mid- chorus)he generates a singleminded, powerfully swinging momentum, only to subvert it by abruptly inserting odd, discontinuous, gestureslike lightly running a brush across the drum head, vigorously rubbing one stick on another that's placed on the head, or rapidly striking the drum with one mallet at a very low dynamic level. Each solo is a willful, disciplined, smartly organized statement that hangs together as a whole, even as the idiosyncrasies add a touch of humor and serve as a reminder that Manne has little use for homogeneity.
Manne's hard, slapping brushes and punchy bass drum obliterate any clear distinction between timekeeping and soloing on a dense, claustrophobic rendition of "Billie's Bounce." The track comes off as a cross between a meeting of the minds and a shoving match, as Charlie Parker's hip, sophisticated tune is transformed into a mad, messy, gleeful scramble. Freeman's penchant for stretching an idea almost beyond recognition, and then rapidly snapping back into a familiar form, is met by a stimulating volley of strokes. Though Manne's rough-and-tumble propulsion surrounds and often threatens to engulf Freeman, he never wrestles the music away from the pianist. The drummer frequently grabs hold of Freeman's phrases, offers tense commentary without breaking stride, and then briskly moves on. Manne's sprightly, four-bar exchanges with Freeman fall into the realm of a conventional jazz drummer's vocabulary, but the force of his brush strokes evokes the sounds of something being slammed, spanked, and nailed down.
Following a couple of sturdy choruses of Freeman's "Speak Easy," Manne and his partner take another tack. While the chord structure of Freeman's line remains intact and offers a degree of familiarity, the duo diverges and pursues separate, parallel paths. Each doggedly tends to his own solo while evincing an ambiguous awareness of the other's actions. The music possesses an odd, erratic quality, as if it is being rapidly switched on and off. Despite the abrupt stops, hesitations, and pauses, Manne's ebullient beats give the impression of constant, agitated and determined movement. He skips from one phrase to another without making obvious transitions or clear connections, attaining a rough, imperfect equilibrium that encompasses bits and pieces of swing and Latin rhythms. Taken in its entirety, the chorus is a bustling abstraction that loosely coheres as Manne and Freeman trip, stumble and hopscotch from place to place, fall silent, and manage to converge for a few seconds at a time.
The significance of Manne's performances on The Three and The Two lies in the ways in which his musical personality shines on every track. Manne's strength, intelligence, ingenuity and willingness to take risksas well as his desire to place himself deep inside of the music with a pure joy in playing the drumsthrives within and transcends the experimental nature of these records. The absence of a bassist, the employment of unusual forms and the presence of three peers who clearly wanted to do things differently than most jazz musicians of the mid-1950sall of these things were contributing factors in some of the finest performances of his prolific career as a recording artist. In the end, not unlike any great jazz artist, Manne's signature achievement on these sides was simply being himself.