Feature/Interview

Guitarist Mikael Máni (new album, Bobby, out now)

Mikael Máni’s interest in the guitar was sparked by a Jimmy Page solo, and his interest in Bobby Fisher stemmed from his fascination with all-consuming passion. The Mikael Máni Trio’s album Bobby brings them together. Rob Adams found out more for LondonJazz News:

Jazz and chess have been dual passions for musicians from Paul Whiteman through Clifford Brown and Anthony Braxton onwards.

For Icelandic guitarist Mikael Máni, an avid chess fan from an early age who once harboured ambitions of playing professionally, trying to get into the mind of a former world chess champion has been a route into creating music.

The Mikael Máni Trio (Photo: Spessi)

Máni’s first album as a leader, Bobby, is inspired by American grand master Bobby Fischer, who took up residence in Iceland after his 1972 World Championship battle with Boris Spassky and whose complicated personality somehow infiltrated a tune Máni composed.

“It was always planned that I’d make an album with Skúli [Sverisson, bass] and Magnús [Trygvason Elíassen, drums and vibraphone] and I had these eleven compositions ready to record when the title track came to me almost fully formed,” says Máni. “I didn’t know what the tune was about at first but then it became clear that it had been inspired by Bobby Fischer, whose biography had captivated me. So I started writing another set of tunes that reflected his story.”

For Máni, Fischer’s shock value – he seems to have been controversial wherever he went – is merely incidental. What fascinated the guitarist was how someone like Fischer develops an all-consuming passion like the grand master had for chess. It reminded Máni of the dedication he encountered, without the darker elements, while studying at Amsterdam Conservatoire, something he found inspiring to be around.

Máni studied jazz guitar in Amsterdam having arrived at both subject and location by a circuitous route. He was born into a family where music was a constant presence. His father owns a record company and has a massive record collection and his mother sent Mikael and his two sisters to study music from an early age, first to singing lessons, then to piano lessons.

By the time a guitar arrived in his life, when he was 12, courtesy of an uncle who had bought a new one and passed his old one on, Mikael wasn’t so keen on learning another instrument and was only keeping on the piano to please his mother.

Led Zeppelin’s How the West Was Won triple live album, and specifically Jimmy Page’s unaccompanied guitar solo on Heartbreaker, changed all that.

“I decided I had to learn how to play that solo,” says Máni, “and from there I began listening to classic rock and then Bob Dylan, who’s still one of my favourite musicians, until I was introduced to jazz at music school. I actually enjoyed playing jazz before I really started listening to it. I loved the freedom you got in improvising over jazz standards but then I heard Herbie Hancock and that was fun. Even if you didn’t like jazz, you’d enjoy Herbie’s music.”    

Máni, who was still in his mid-teens at this point, then met Skúli Sverisson and Magnús Trygvason Elíassen, musicians who are respectively two generations and one generation older than Máni, on the Reykjavik music scene. Initially, he says, he was quite in awe of the former especially.  

“Getting Skúli’s email address was quite a big deal for me,” he says. “But we kept in touch while I was studying in Amsterdam and when I returned to Reykjavik he and Magnús were keen to work with me. The level of concentration and the attention to detail they bring to my tunes are such that I tend write set melodies but leave a significant unfinished element for us all to work together and develop the idea. In fact, the final track on the album was intended to be much faster but we played it first at a rehearsal tempo and Skúli and Magnús created such a great groove at that tempo that I never told them it was meant to be faster and just kept it the way they played it.”

Máni is now working on material for his next album and planning some UK dates in 2020 which will feature the personnel from Bobby with an extra member, Máni’s sister, Lilja María Ásmundsdóttir, who is currently studying in London, on metallophone and piano.

“There were three tracks on Bobby that the three of us agreed had a natural place for a metallophone,” he says. “So I’m now writing with a quartet in mind, because I always think of the musicians – and their musical personalities – who are going to play my music when I’m working on something new.”

The Mikael Máni Trio’s Bobby is available now on Smekkleysa Records.

LINK: Mikael Máni’s website

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