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Tony Malaby: Turnpike Diaries

Photo credit: Randy Thaler

Dave Kaufman By

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About half an hour later, I'm in one of these things where I'm completely gone, just from my eyes closed deep into the music, and they are back and just listening to us. Billy and I are playing crazy shit, we're really going at it now, and they listen, and then they walk away and walk around the corner, and it was so beautiful. —Tony Malaby
COVID-19 has decimated the live music business and left many jazz musicians without the much-needed income from gigs. The absence of live music has been partially compensated for by livestream performances and a small number of outdoor gigs, including those supported by the Arts for Arts group. Nevertheless, feel-good stories have been few and far between amidst the wreckage of the pandemic. However, Tony Malaby and friends have created a musical oasis in the most unusual of places, a secluded location situated under a New Jersey Freeway. Malaby is one of the most celebrated saxophonists on the New York free jazz and improvised music scene. He has also worked extensively in both Canada and South America in recent years. This is a tale of how deferred plans created a new opportunity for musical adventures and collaborative sonic explorations. This is the story of the Turnpike diaries.

All About Jazz: Could you start by telling me a little bit about your circumstance. Tell me how the pandemic impacted your plans. I know you had some very good things happening, particularly in South America and Canada. How did your plans change?

Tony Malaby: Well, there was excellent work through 2020 on the books and lots of festivals. I was very excited about new projects with young people, including two younger European musicians, drummer Sam Ber and a violinist named Laura Schuler. We had really good stuff happening in Europe—not just in the festival period, but extending into the fall that collapsed. There was a tour with a French trio that I was looking forward to with Richard Bonnet and Sylvain Darrifourcq. There's beautiful chemistry there, and there was supposed to be an exchange between France and the States. We were also going to tour the states with that project. I was supposed to be in France around mid-December) doing stuff with them, and then again during the Christmas holiday period. We received a grant to support the tour in the States. Hopefully, that'll happen there next year. I have been far from the mainstream and living in this kind of underground music scene, which I love. It has sustained me over the last decade.

I had the great pleasure of connecting to a music scene happening in South America. I love being able to go to Colombia for a month and teach and absorb the culture and speak my native tongue, 24/7. Also, I bring them my musical culture from New York, which they're very responsive to—the energy and the intensity and how it has evolved from the mainstream and how it has become abstracted, and how I play with that. There's a consciousness there, and it's the same in Buenos Aires, where people understand that I come from a jazz template. The aesthetic is based on how to play your instrument and how much rhythm from swing remains a big part of my world. You try to stretch away from it and see how far you can go before it snaps. That's what energizes me. I was very much enjoying the last few years of my life being able to do those exchanges. At this point, all of the countries in South America are just going through insanity with their economic systems and struggling to control the virus. Argentina is upside down. There's no way to make any money if I go back there to do those kinds of trips to continue developing musical projects and teaching. The venues and everything around it have collapsed. Those are the things that we're special to me, and they also allowed me to exist in a way where I could be out there and keep pushing. Yeah, so it's just an insane year for me.

AAJ: You also had a deep connection to the Toronto music scene.

TM: Yeah, so I mean, my friendship with (drummer) Nick Fraser, it's something very special, and not being able to play with him too has been difficult. I have a longstanding relationship with Nick and have toured with his groups across Canada several times over 20 years. We have recorded together on several occasions, and there is a forthcoming album on Hat Art due soon. The recording features his string band, which includes an excellent cellist, Andrew Downing. In addition, I had evolved something extraordinary playing with bassist Rob Clutton, just the core chemistry that I had with those guys is outstanding. Wow, I really missed those experiences. Rob and I recorded a duet album together, Offering, that was very well received. I was looking forward to doing more stuff with Rob. I wanted him to come to New York City and see what we can develop. He's a very special musician.

AAJ: Can you tell us who came out to play under the Turnpike.

TM: There is the core trio with John Hébert and Billy Mintz. These are guys I have played with for over 25 years. We all live in New Jersey, making it really easy for us to get together to play. Mintz may not be as well known as the other guys, but he is a veteran drummer with a long and distinguished history as a sideman and a leader. There was quite a range of bass players including William Parker, who I think was the first one to come out. Others include Mark Helias, Ken Filiano, Chris Lightcap, Michael Formanek and Tim Dahl. Other than Billy, the drummers who have come out include Mark Ferber, Ches Smith, and a young drummer Colin Hinton. He's a good cat. Horn players include Tim Berne, Michael Attias, Dave Scott, Dave Ballou, and Kenny Warren, a great improviser. He's come out multiple times. I love playing with Kenny Warren.

AAJ: Where did the idea come for down there? When did that start?

TM: I think it was 2018, Arts for Arts was doing these garden concert series that they do in the East Village, and Patricia Nicholson Parker asked me to put together a trio. I was going to play with Billy Mintz and Hill Greene. We arrived and began unloading equipment and then, we were informed that the rest of the sets were canceled. After receiving noise complaints from the neighbors, police arrived and shut the whole thing down. Billy and I threw the drums back in the car, and we're just so bummed that we did not get to play. On returning to New Jersey, we have a special shortcut route as we come out of the Holland Tunnel where we go under certain underpasses, including those connected to the New Jersey Turnpike. As we are driving, we found ourselves in a deserted space under the Turnpike. We realized that we are not going to bother anybody down here and we set up and play.

There's a generational thing with people my age and older who had the experience where you were expected to play three sets. Even the Vanguard used to have these three-set weekends back in the day when I was playing with Paul Motian. It's something really funny that I share with Mintz. We would sometimes play two sets in Brooklyn or in Manhattan and then find a place to go play some more. On some occasions, when we are playing under the Turnpike, other group members have to leave, and Billy and I will continue to play. Billy had this idea a month ago that we should play "Evidence" (by Thelonious Monk). So the next time we meet was with John Hebert, and we played Evidence for the entire two sets. Then John leaves, and Billy and I continued playing Evidence for another set. It's a piece of music where you can do that—it holds up to many interpretations, many different tempos, you can play it free, and you can play it in other meters. It's just this amazing drum call. The whole tune is basically a clave (rhythmic patterns common to Afro-Cuban music), and it allows you just to stretch out.

AAJ: When did this startup during the pandemic?

TM: When COVID was really bad, Mintz and I started talking about the under the turnpike spot. My 16-year son Jack and I have been going on these walks every day. Billy suggested that we should check out the spot. We went there one day, and there were 15 to 20 skaters. The parks were all closed, and this is the only space available to them—everybody's drinking beer, from great IPAs to Pabst Blue Ribbon.

We started playing during the first week of July 2020. We were meeting two to three times a week. Yeah, and we all needed it. By the summer, things were safer, given that we are playing outside. I mean, you're in this underpass. It sounds fantastic. It's really nice playing down there. Billy and I played in mid-January, and it was brutal. We will try to start up in late February if possible. The Silverstein company came through with these crazy-ass new reeds synthetic and not affected by the weather. I love playing them down there. I've recorded with the reeds a few times, and the cats can't tell that I'm playing plastic reeds—they sound great.

It's a very special relationship with the trio—we have great chemistry. I showed them all the pieces by ear, and I want to continue working that way with them. On a related note, John created a situation in his basement for us to play and where I shot the saxophone out the backdoor so that we can stay safe. We played an Arts for Arts Salon gig a couple of weeks ago (January). We played a new set of my embryonic compositions that I plan to continue to develop with the trio—new improvisational, rhythmic, and harmonic strategies.

Different musicians have come out to play. Chris Hoffman, the cellist, has been out multiple times. He's on a few of the recordings that will be coming out. Chris came up to the site with a great young bassist, Brandon Lopez. He's a fantastic improviser and bassist, just a real special force. So it's been a great gathering of friends. I kept hearing vibraphone down there, and the only person I could think of was Patricia Brennan, but it hasn't worked out yet. I had a large ensemble that started a couple of years ago with Patricia, Kenny Warren, and Michael Attias, among others. I plan to do a large ensemble recording from under the Turnpike sometime in the spring with many of my favorite musicians.

AAJ: In the video on Youtube, a cop car turns and passes right by, just kind of amazing.

TM: There was also this insanity during COVID that went down with just the racial violence and this whole thing where cities were debating whether to fund the police. They probably decided that we weren't their priority and did not bother us. On other occasions, we pulled up and sat in the car because cops were parked right across from where we set up. Two cop cars, and they were drinking coffee and having donuts. We sat in the car for a while, thinking they're going to leave soon, and they don't. After a time, we set up, and we start playing. Never has anybody said anything to us.

There were some interesting happenings. A student from Rhode Island comes down to take a lesson with me down there. He's playing and has his back turned to the road, and suddenly, a homeless guy walks right behind him. This guy is completely nude, except that he was wearing brown leather shoes and walks behind him to the end of the block.

I haven't been scared down there, but there's been a couple of incidences where I'm really gone in the music and have my eyes closed. I'll open them up as somebody's walking up to where we are playing, and they want to give you money— they want to put money in your bell, and they're very close. I open my eyes at that point, shivers, and goosebumps, over my entire body. It's just jarring, and it's happened three or four times. As we talked about, it's a relatively secluded location. There's a little bit of foot traffic, mostly joggers. Sometimes people stop and watch us. There's a nanny who walks a kid in a stroller, and then there's a kid who's a little older who comes and dances. They're regulars. People have asked to come out and watch, and I don't want to draw attention to the place out of fear that it might get shut down.

AAJ: One of the things watching the video, you cover a lot of musical ground. At some points, you've got a great groove happening. I guess you're playing some compositions, some much more freely, as well as improvising. I noticed that you opened with a new tune, Baldwin.

TM: That's what we started calling the nude black man because he looks exactly like James Baldwin. Here's what's really funny. So that day, getting back to Baldwin, I teach the lesson to the student who came down from Rhode Island; Baldwin comes walking up the street, buck naked except for the leather shoes. Dig this and then disappears, right. I go back later at night to play a session, and we're talking about Baldwin, and he comes up at that instant in a velour, sparkly jogging suit with the zipper pulled down to his navel, and he's carrying a bottle of champagne. He walks right by. The site is very well lit, and we can play at night. One evening Billy and I stayed very late, and it might have been a weekend because a very young posse showed up with girls and boys. They walk by, and they start heckling, and we kept playing. After a time, they go well, "leave them alone, they sound pretty good. They sound really good for old guys," and then they walk away. I never turned my head to acknowledge them. About half an hour later, I'm in one of these things where I'm completely gone, just from my eyes closed deep into the music, and they are back and just listening to us. Billy and I are playing crazy shit, we're really going at it now, and they listen, and then they walk away and walk around the corner, and it was so beautiful. A lot of people walk by say hello, some people film us, a lot of people, especially the skaters, talk to us, they get closer and closer, and there's an exchange, and we're watching those guys. In their own way, they're doing the same shit we're doing. They're stretching. They're working their moves. They're working it out. They're going for things—taking chances. Yeah, it's a special place.

AAJ: On a given day, you might be a trio, you might have five musicians, so you might know, it depends on. Do you plan anything in advance?

TM: I've used different strategies to develop a group language, including rhythmic and harmonic ideas. There was a scenario where I sent some pieces in advance to Chris Hoffman. I told him that I might go into some of these things and just to get your head around these things a little. But I didn't tell Billy or William. I love what we did that day, and this music will be released soon. We tried the same strategy with Brandon Lopez, and it worked very well.

AAJ: There are stretches where you guys have a great groove happening, just locked in, and you're playing pretty straight ahead. I love that mix.

TM: I think a lot of people don't understand it. A lot of people fail to appreciate that it doesn't have to be one or the other. There's so much expression that comes from that tension, from playing with that, from playing with how far can you get from rhythm, from the harmony, from the melodic stuff and get into the noise shit, but then snap right back in, and everything's together again. Everybody's in lockstep doing that. I'm happy that I can keep developing these ideas during the shutdown.

When I play with John and Billy, we mix free improvisations with playing tunes and playing standards. That's something really positive for me. Those guys get me back to playing tunes and just that fascination again with how clear can I play now and how far away I can get from that. This has been my whole New York experience. It's just trying to work on exploring those boundaries. That's basically my aesthetic

AAJ: Tell me how Chris Hoffman was engaged musically.

TM: Well, we have a really good history because I had a group called Tubacello that Chris was in with John Hollenbeck and tuba player Bob Stewart. We did some touring. We did some playing in the States, and also we played Europe. We developed a beautiful friendship, and we've grown together, musically. I've learned how to write for him, and he's just somebody exceptional. It's also something I have with Kenny Warren that's in this loop of development. We have a very special connection that's still in the works, but he has a beautiful sound. He's very musical, but he's in this thing with the noise and the form and that range, which Hoffman has in a different way. I'm trying to find these kinds of musicians. Also, Hoffman's thing is he's very amphibious; he can shift with the musical situation where he and I can float something into what Billy and William are doing and develop it or let it go and find the other thing that works better and paint from there. We work in a very tight-knit way, and then those guys are getting it, and it blossoms, and it's exactly what I want. It's something that will never happen again. But the potential for it to be different every time you do it is great. I'm trying to find these kinds of allies, and it's something I've always been trying to find.

The history that I have with the group of Tim, Ches, Michael, and Mark is that I've worked for all of them. I've learned from these guys how to develop group language and how to write for each other. From that comes a way of improvising together. Tim Berne and I have a long history. One of the first things I did when I came to New York that allowed me to slip into that world was a Formanek record called The Nature of the Beast on Enja (1997). That led to me working with Marty Ehrlich and Mark Dresser, etc. I was also a member of Open Loose for over ten years, 15 years, which is Helias' world. Aside from being an outstanding bassist, he conducts Formanek's big band. So it's all interconnected in this way. They all play with Marty as well. Ches plays in all of Tim's bands, he plays in Formanek's band and just something that I'm trying to develop, especially as I get older, is I have to do it with the right people. I can't farm myself out and play with people that aren't a part of this consciousness. I just really want to streamline it and focus. The Turnpike has given me that opportunity because there's no work, no sideman gigs. I've had to organize everything that happens down there. It's made me realize who these guys are that I enjoy playing with and developing musically, and who are the guys that I can really just improvise with and really get to the places where I'm getting off, which is very crucial at this time.

AAJ: I have one last question, and this is a little bit leftfield. I know jazz happens anywhere. You can go practically anywhere in the world and see jazz musicians in a small park, in front of a statue with nothing else around or on a street corner. I don't know if you're inspired by that, or for example, Sonny Rollins on the bridge.

TM: Of course, of course. I've been playing outside for years. I was drawing inspiration from nature years ago. Many of my tune titles and stuff are based on water, on the elements, on bird calls, on this kind of thing. Somebody who really got me outside to practice was a trombone player, Ben Gerstein. We would practice under the George Washington Bridge. He lived in Washington Heights, and he would come to Jersey City weekly to play with Mintz and I. We played here in my garage with the door open, and then I would go up to Washington Heights and play under the bridge. There's something there because you're dealing with something similar from the Turnpike where you're dealing with these human-made sounds. We used to set up right along the highway sometimes, which is incredible because of the cars going by, and then we moved up on top of the bluff right by the bridge, which gave us a different sound.

There's something about playing outdoors—especially a woodwind when you have to create a force field with your sound for it to have any presence. I attribute a lot of my sound development to playing outside, and I'm sure that had shaped Sonny's sound as well. Your sound just dissipates. It just goes, so you really have to center it. You have to learn how to bounce it off of things. You have to learn how to push air this way and that way. Having the right kind of reed and mouthpiece has all been vital for me, which has greatly increased my dynamic range. It's been an incredible exploration and experimentation that continues to this day. I am always trying to find that perfect balance of resistance and vibration.

AAJ: Tell me about your plans for recording this music?

TM: Randy Thaler has been recording shows of mine in Brooklyn and Manhattan for many years, including one of the releases on Clean Feed Records. He caught wind of the Trio playing under the Turnpike and offered his services to record us. All of these sessions have been captured by videographer Kevin Reilly who is a big fan of this music and runs the label Relative Pitch Records.

The first release, the Turnpike Diaries Volume 001, is available on Bandcamp and features Tim Berne, Michael Formanek, Mark Helias, and Ches Smith. I'm also going to release a trio recording from the Turnpike with Formanek and Mark Ferber. It's some of my best playing. There's a quartet with William Parker, Christopher Hoffman, and Billy Mintz. I am also releasing the first studio recording that the Turnpike trio (Mintz and Hebert) made. It was presented as part of the Arts for Arts Salon series in August 2020. It was recorded at Jim Clouse's Park West Studios studio in Brooklyn. He very graciously provided the space without charge to Arts for Arts. The recording was outstanding, and I am delighted with the music and excited about the forthcoming release.

My walk to the spot under the Turnpike with both horns on my back those days was so full of joy and anticipation. I was going to throw sound with some of my favorite improvisers. It still keeps me looking forward and positive during these trying times.

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