Tony Malaby is wearing running pants and sandals. His window is wide open to the street out front and the chilly air that the sunset is bringing in. He has just gotten off the phone with the Knitting Factory, working out the particulars for the June 30th CD release party for his upcoming album, Apparitions
Across the room from his desk with the phone is a drum set that he and his wife, pianist Angelica Sanchez, keep in their Jersey City home to make it easier for drummers to come over and rehearse. As a matter of fact, drummer Gerald Cleaver was just here playing them for a rehearsal. Malaby's two tenor saxophones sit on stands nearby, and Sanchez' piano is against the wall, holding dozens of piano books.
Before the rehearsal, Malaby was in midtown Manhattan, studying a form of Tai Chi that he has been practicing since January to help with a repetitive stress injury he was starting to get in his left arm from playing the saxophone so much. In addition to helping with his arm, the Tai Chi has taught Malaby to breathe more deeply, so that he does not have to gasp for air in the middle of musical phrases.
More abstractly, he explains that it has also taught him how not to "get in the way of other people" when he plays. Malaby talks with his hands, and here he is holding both hands so that his index fingers and thumbs touch, making a triangle. At the front of the triangle, where his index fingers meet, is "the point". This, he explains, is where most horn players play in jazz groups, while the rhythm section plays in the bottom part of the triangle, where his thumbs are.
"Tom Rainey [the drummer] has been talking to me about it for years, but it just wouldn't sink in. He was like 'Don't take a solo; play, but don't take a solo.' And [pianist] Chuck Marohnic would say 'you're always at the point, man; position yourself somewhere else.' And it really hit me 10 years later in a real physical way," says Malaby.
He is excited while he talks about it, and though his arms move continuously with his words, the movement is loose and airy. "It feels suspended. It feels like I'm not taking a solo, not leading, that the guys are not accompanying me. It feels like we're all intertwined."
This is the effect he was going for when he began composing the pieces that would become Apparitions. Malaby wrote down skeletons of the compositions and then brought them to the group, which features Malaby on tenor and soprano saxophones, Drew Gress on the bass and drummers Rainey and Michael Sarin (for most of the tracks, Rainey is on the right speaker and Sarin on the left). Then he let the musicians in the group develop the music with him, and as a result, it is extremely hard to tell where they are playing written material and where they are improvising.
Malaby says, "an aesthetic started forming, the way you play the heads, the composition as you play it. You play it like an improvisation. And when you do improvise, you make it like an extension of what you just played, so it's not like a solo. It's an extension of the composition. That is what is exciting about this type of composition; it's always changing. It's modular."
Structure and form are certainly familiar for Malaby, whose improvised music relies heavily on their implication. Originally from Arizona, the saxophonist moved to New Jersey in 1990 to attend William Patterson University and play with the Joey DeFrancesco Quintet. A little while later he landed a steady gig with the high profile but musically rigid Mingus Big Band. These gigs steeped Malaby in jazz tradition, but he felt constrained by the style, especially after he met outside players like multi-reedist Marty Ehrlich, bassist Michael Formanek and Rainey.
Of the contrast between his traditional music and the newer music he was being exposed to, Malaby relates, "it's like I would get swayed from this camp or that camp and get the opinions from both angles. I just didn't want that. I wanted to have one voice, a creative voice that could deal with both parameters. And so I wanted to get away from all that and start with a clean slate, just kind of come up with something." After moving back to Arizona, Malaby married Sanchez, who had been coming regularly to his gigs in Phoenix. The two began to play together constantly, developing a musical bond that mirrored their marital one. And then they met the drummer Hamza Abdul (for whom "Remolino/Hamza" on Malaby's album, Sabino, is named).
Abdul "painted and did sculpture, but he was also a self-taught musician. He couldn't read or write music, so he would show us his tunes by ear. He would use great descriptions for the chords, like a 'deeper purple', 'this should be a more yellow tone', 'this needs to be denser' and things like that. But the amazing thing about that is when we performed these pieces, they would expand and they would contract and breathe. They were modular and that started something with Angie and me."