By the time Phil Maneri first discovered the Alsatian Queen in a shop in 2007, the double bass had already lived dozens of lives, beginning with the moment it was crafted more than 160 years ago, likely in the Alsatian region of Eastern France/Western Germany.
From there, Maneri said, the instrument eventually made its way to Canada, where the Montreal Symphony Orchestra owned and maintained it for more than a century. The bass later turned up at a New York City instrument shop run by David Gage, where it was purchased by jazz musician Steve LaSpina, who played it for years before an incident led to it being damaged and eventually sold. (When Maneri happened upon the bass, it had been improperly rebuilt, leaving it unable to sing in the way it once had.)
“[LaSpina] told me the story of what happened to it in New York, and it was an emotional thing for him to let go of it,” said Maneri, who details these events in his multifaceted new show, “The Alsatian Queen,” which will employ a host of musicians, dancers and artists to tell the history of the bass at Short North Stage on Tuesday, July 25. “I’ve always been fascinated by these instruments and their history. And I tend to anthropomorphize them more than I should, but they really do take on a life of their own as they move through time and space. And a bass like this, in 160 years it’s gone through so many players and played a huge volume of music. It’s not a bass that’s been sitting in a closet somewhere. It was working all the time.”
This makes the instrument a perfect fit for Maneri, who could be described in a similar fashion. At the time of our mid-July interview, he was not only putting the final touches on the sprawling “Alsatian Queen,” but also preparing for additional shows on Thursday and Saturday in the week leading to the premiere. “I book on paper and not in my head, so sometimes when I’m living it, I’m like, ‘What are you doing, dude?’” he said, and laughed. “Especially ones where I’m doing two or three gigs in a day. ‘I can make it. I got enough travel time!’ It's that kind of thing.”
When Maneri first obtained the bass, he was unaware of its epic backstory, drawn initially to the sense of promise he felt the instrument possessed, and which his friend Nick Lloyd, a Cincinnati-based double-bass builder, believed the pair could unlock. (It didn’t hurt, of course, that the damage incurred by the bass dropped it to within Maneri’s price range, the instrument purchased with inheritance he received from his father, who had previously instructed his son “to get a proper bass while you can afford it.”)
The vibrations that inhabit the Alsatian Queen had an immediate impact on Maneri’s playing, with the musician recalling an early gig on the instrument where the drummer spent the entirety of the show giving him the side eye. “And on the break he goes, ‘Dude, have you been [wood]shedding or something? You’re playing shit I don’t even know,’” Maneri said. “And I’m like, ‘No, dude, it’s the bass.’ And he goes, ‘No, no, no. You’re completely full of shit. I’m not listening to this at all.’ And then we play the second set, and it’s more of that, and he’s going, ‘Dude, you’re making me believe in ghosts.’ And there is something to that, because the bass was informing me of things that were possible that I did not really think about. And maybe I could be scientific about it, and maybe it’s the vibrations of the wood and my response to it, but I prefer the metaphysical.”
The idea of the instrument leading the charge is central to “The Alsatian Queen,” which Maneri said he was careful to center on the instrument rather than himself, placing it in the hands of other players over the course of the show. In rehearsing these numbers, Maneri was repeatedly reminded of the instrument’s unique powers, recalling the way Jena Huebner made the room quake when she first took hold of the bass, making it “roar in a way I hadn't yet been able to,” he said.
“Granted, she’s got skills; that’s what she does,” continued Maneri. “But there’s a relationship between the person and the instrument that I find fascinating, and some of that is what I wanted to bring out. In this show, as the bass travels across different styles of music, it goes through several different players’ hands and the sound of it changes dramatically. It’s a demonstration of how the instrument can sound different with different players, but then also how the instrument has some continuity in and of itself across the whole thing.”
While Maneri is running the show, he said he’s hardly in charge, ceding the spotlight and the creative thrust to a variety of performers across disciplines, including artists AJ Vanderelli and Lance Johnson, who will paint live during the event, the BHB dance crew, and a small army of musicians ranging from jazz and classical players to rapper Ebri Yahloe. “I’m a big fan of collaboration, and I wanted to do something where I could get a whole mess of people together to do something that’s greater than any of them,” said Maneri, who credited a grant from the Johnstone Fund for New Music with affording him the time and resources needed to craft a show of this scale.
On a more personal level, though, the process of bringing "The Alsatian Queen" to the stage has served as a unique reminder that the instrument Maneri has owned for more than 16 years still has an unparalleled ability to surprise him.
“And it happens constantly, because it’s so far above my pay grade that I’ll never really grow into it,” he said. “Even though it’s been a dead tree for a long time, it’s still organic material, and it’s still constantly in motion. … It’s moving along its own timeline, and I'm lucky that I get to go along on the ride for a while.”