Tony Malaby at TCAN
The Center for the Arts in Natick
Friday, July 6, 2001
Tony Malaby is a tenor saxophonist making his name in New York these days. Since I do not get down to the Big Apple as often as I would like, I became aware of him at Mp3.com, where he is well represented by recordings at the sites of pianist Sunna Gunnlaugs and drummer Scott McLemore. You can here his excellent playing on the tracks posted there, but you cannot appreciate the fullness of his voice on the tenor until you hear him live. The first thing I noticed as he warmed up was the presence, depth and beauty of his sound in the room; the tones coming from some deep and honest place in side the man. He was joined this evening by two musicians he works with regularly, although in various other groups, bassist John Hebert, and drummer Geroge Schuller. Shculler is remembered in the Boston area for, among other things, the band Orange Then Blue, which I believe he organized or had a hand in organizing, and which made very interesting music around here for a number of years. He now lives in Brooklyn and is the favorite of several musicians including the singer Lisa Thorson. Hebert is new to me, but I would guess he is not sitting at home wondering if anyone will call, for he has everything one would want in a bassist, excellent time and tone, sensitivity as an accompanist, and good solos.
The tunes were all originals and were relatively simple and open, providing moods and points of reference for the trio's free-ranging group improvisation. This is music that has its roots in the early work of Ornette Coleman and requires, as Tony Malaby put it, "a lot of trust." To that I would add considerable musicianship and a lack of ego. The thing that I was most taken with in Malby's playing overall was his good taste and sense of service to the music. This a saxophonist who has the capability to burn the paint off the walls all night long with technique alone, if he wanted to. Instead he uses his remarkable command of the tenor to "tell good stories," focusing on lyricism and good melodic thinking at all times. When he does play with blast furnace intensity, it is always in the context of the piece and with a sense of purpose and balance.
Indeed all three of the players shared this service to balance and a sense of purpose, of "telling a story," which can get lost in "free" playing. All three of the musicians contributed to the pool of compositions, and the concert began with bassist John Hebert's "Media Luna," with its nocturnal lyricism and a beautiful falsetto ending by Malaby. Tony's control of the "top tones" of the instrument is truly breathtaking and he used it to very good effect later in the evening in his own "Third Mystery." Since the tunes were all new to me, it is difficult to give a rundown of them, but another that stuck in my mind was George Schuller's "The Symptoms," which has all kinds of delightfully boppish twists and turns that he used throughout the solos as little guideposts. It is possible, but I do not think likely, that the trio was following a form in this tune; however, there was this riff that kept returning, like the ‘ritornello' in a Baroque concerto or a refrain in a preacher's sermon, and gave coherence to the piece while allowing the soloist to get quite loose and wild and yet not go "off the edge," as it were. The best drummers, as all instrumentalists, have a recognizable voice, and this is certainly true of Schuller, whose flexible, sure-footed playing was a joy all evening. That voice was also clearly audible in this tune.
I know that beating up on Ken Burns' "Jazz" has become something of an old saw at this point, but I could not help thinking once again of my disappointment and even rage at the final episode of that series as I listened to this beautiful music. Here was the mature expression of a musical lineage traceable back a good forty five years, to and through the work of a legion of jazz musician, many of whom have their roots in even earlier periods of the music, and yet it was all glossed over in the TV special. If jazz had died between 1965 and the early eighties then what of Ornette, and Mingus, and Sam Rivers; of Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette, and Paul Motian; of Roscoe Mitchell, and Lester Bowie and a whole host of others to whose music the work of these three dedicated musicians made reference on this evening. Granted that jazz is, and in its purest form always has been, a music for the serious listener, there is still no good reason why such a vital human expression should be so ignored in the country of its birth. If Tony Malby, or John Hebert or George Schuller come to your neighborhood, be sure to come out and listen to them.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not bring some attention to this remarkable venue. The Center for the Arts in Natick (TCAN) is the creation of a community of artists, musicians and lovers of the arts in the suburban Boston town of Natick, MA. Under the leadership of its director, Michael Moran, it has gone from a storefront gallery/performance space, to an organization that will soon operate a state of the art theater, gallery and studio facility. TCAN is not only a strong supporter of jazz music, with as many as three presentations a week, but a home for all idioms of music as well as theater and the visual arts. Organizations such as this all over the country need a deserve our continued support, since they vital in the struggle to keep real culture alive in this "made for TV" era we are living in.