Jesse Manley Brings Dust to Syntax Physic Opera

Jesse Manley
Jesse Manley Amanda Tipton
Jesse Manley and his six-piece band will release their latest album, Dust, at Syntax Physic Opera tonight, Friday, March 10. The recording represents the fourth time Manley has written music for the ballet company Wonderbound. This is quite the unusual partnership for a guy whose musical roots lie within the folk tradition. And yet Manley's actual musical path hasn't been so conventional, either.

Manley was born in Montana and went to school in Oklahoma, earning a degree in environmental science at the University of Oklahoma in Norman before moving to Colorado in 2001 to be back near the mountains. He'd taken some basic music lessons in high school, but quit playing music during his college years. Once in Colorado, Manley played the usual gauntlet of open-mic nights at places like the Mercury Cafe and the Meadowlark before recording his debut album, Devil's Red, in 2011, with Colorado progressive-rock legend Dave Willey of Thinking Plague and Hamster Theatre. Following that, Manley recorded a 2013 EP, A Path Through the Dark, with Jeff Rady, David Thomas Bailey and Dean Hirschman, the latter of whom he writes and performs with today.

In 2014, Manley began working with Wonderbound Artistic Director Garrett Ammon, creating compositions to accompany the troupe's live ballet performances. Without any real formal music training beyond those early music lessons in high school, Manley dove into the concepts for each production and taught himself new techniques and new instruments, including the Weissenborn, which he learned about from the recordings of Jeff Fahey and brought to his writing of Dust.

Tonight's show at Syntax will not involve the ballet production, but Manley will perform selections from the new record with his long-running band comprising violinist Emily Rose Lewis, cellist David Short, upright bass player Jean-Luc Davis, percussionist Dean Hirschman and multi-instrumentalist April Johannesen, who plays clarinet, bass clarinet and flute. We recently spoke with Manley about some of the ideas behind Dust and the dynamics of a band that is rooted in the simplicity of folk music but performs as a chamber orchestra with complex arrangements.

Westword: With Wonderbound, you write to the concepts of the performance. What was the concept behind Dust?

Jesse Manley: The concept for the show is the Dust Bowl and exploring the complexities of that time period and how it relates to more current topical issues like the environmental issues we're experiencing. Through the character development, interesting ideas came up. One of the characters was a snake-oil salesman-type character and another was a preacher. So I wrote a gospel tune called “Bring Me Home,” for which we filmed a music video at an old farmhouse in Parker. The script developed, I wrote music at the same time, and we came together and changed the music to line up with some of the choreography.

You didn't go to school for composition, but now you work with something like a miniature orchestra?

No. I just liked exploring stuff, and I'm willing to dive in and learn. I try to learn new instruments and technique, but that stems from the concept of the show. The more instruments you have, the more complicated it becomes to make everything fit. If everyone plays at once, it becomes a mess. A lot of what we learned as a band at first, I think, was that it's okay not to play. It's cool playing with people that understand that sometimes less is more. I've learned a lot from the band because they're all such accomplished musicians in arranging and theory. They all come from the background of having gone to school for music.

Why play folk instead of some more popular music from when you were growing up? For you, it's also partially grounded in the literary aspects of the music these days.

Something has always drawn me to acoustic instruments. Maybe it fits my personality, too, because I'm a laid-back, mellow kind of dude. I grew up listening to a lot of folk music from my dad, [and] that has always stuck with me. There's parts of it I'm still exploring. A big part of songwriting is writing lyrics and not doing it shittily. My goal is to write lyrics that can stand on their own like poetry can. For a long time, lyrics were something that weren't an afterthought, but it came second for me. I spent more time with the music. With Leonard Cohen passing, I've thought about how his words are the kinds of lyrics I'd like to write. His spiritual journey and his seeking to understand what he's going through is a big inspiration.

Jesse Manley with Anthony Ruptak and the Midnight Friends, Friday, March 10, 9 p.m., Syntax Physic Opera, 720-456-7041, $7, 21+.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.