"Bon qu'à ça" was Samuel Beckett's typically laconic response to the question "Why do you write?" – and no English translation ("that's all I'm good for") can do justice to its terse, trisyllabic minimalism. There's the same "this is what I do" matter-of-factness to the music of Manuel Mota, a singular figure in the post-Fahey continuum (to misquote Anthony Braxton) of improv guitar heroes, who rarely performs outside a small circle of friends and has released only a handful of recordings, many on his own hard-to-find Headlights imprint, in a career now entering its third decade.
Charting the evolution of Mota's playing, whether on acoustic or electric guitar, is no easy matter. While one can clearly hear, on successive albums, Taku Sugimoto composing himself into near-silence and Loren Connors stripping the blues to the bone and wrapping the skeleton in a shroud of hum and hiss, drop the needle on any of the tracks in this handsome 5-CD box, which contains concert recordings from Lisbon, Ljublana and Paris along with eleven tracks recorded in Mota's own home, and you could easily mistake it for something he released a decade ago. There's a little more space in the music these days, for sure, but Keith Rowe's observations on Mondrian in The Wire #206 come to mind: "[He] just basically did the same thing. Even after the seismic change of going to live in America, his lines just thickened up a bit."
It's well nigh impossible, especially on a guitar, to avoid references to the repertoire you've grown up with, the memory written in the fingers – think of Alan Licht's tasty jam band licks, Derek Bailey's Webernian bebop – but there's there's very little in Mota's playing that reveals the blues rock he was weaned on. It's deceptively cool, studiously avoids excess and seems remarkably relaxed, yet once you start listening you're absolutely spellbound – check out how the ambient murmur and rustle of the punters at Lisbon's Zdb artspace on disc three quickly subsides into rapt attention.
Now that many improvisers arrive at the gig with a bagful of compositional caveats and thou shalt nots, it's refreshing to come across what used to be called "in the moment" playing (you can certainly hear why Bailey admired Mota), where the slightest accident, the tweak of an effects pedal catching the resonance of a harmonic, can send the music off in an entirely different direction. Fellow guitarist and Dromos labelmate Tetuzi Akiyama sums it up well in his affectionate mesostic that consitutes the liner notes: "the hands fooling / encounters new thoughts / after logics abandoned / bringing the distance / toward us away."
Dan Warburton in The Wire #347