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Tony Malaby with Nick Fraser at the Rex

Dave Kaufman By

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I recently relocated to Toronto and I'm still familiarizing myself with the local jazz scene and musicians. The scene itself turns out to be more expansive and broader in musical scope than I anticipated. The Rex Jazz Bar and Hotel is the pre-eminent jazz club in the city. It features jazz seven nights a week with as many as 20 shows in a given week, almost rivaling Smalls Jazz in New York City for the breadth of its schedule. I have been to the club about 10 times dating back to my visits to the city over the last decade or so.

On Thursday, I had the good fortune of seeing two outstanding sets by the great saxophonist Tony Malaby guesting with the Nick Fraser Group. I have seen Tony Malaby many times in New York City both as a sideman and as a leader. Many of those shows were at the Cornelia Street Café, a wonderful venue for jazz and creative music that sadly closed its doors after 40 years. Drummer Nick Fraser is one of the leading lights on the free jazz and improvised music scene in Toronto. Malaby and Fraser have worked together for a number of years, toured together and made several recordings, mainly on the Clean Feed label. I was not previously acquainted with trumpeter Jimmy Lewis and double bassist, Alex Fournier, but they proved to be formidable musical partners as was Fraser. I imagine that this group of musicians had not had much opportunity to play together prior to the show, but they were remarkably simpatico. I was immensely impressed by musicians both individually and collectively.

The music featured eight compositions by Malaby spanning his career. I read an interview with Fraser in which he used the phrase "improvising at the edges of composition" and I think that perfectly captured the music that was played. The highlight of the first set was Remolino, a composition that Malaby recorded on several albums and in very different musical contexts. There is a superb version on Novela (2011), an album featuring a nonet and arrangements by Kris Davis. On this occasion, Remolino took on the quality of an (informal) free jazz suite that stretched for 30-40 minutes. Although there was much in the way of free improvisation, the performance was structured by distinct phases punctuated by periods of collective improvisation, individual solos, extended melodic passages, shifts in dynamics and points in which the music was rhythmically very dense and alternately spare. The phases were also marked or possibly signaled by Malaby alternating between tenor and soprano. It was a brilliant performance.

The second set featured four compositions that were played continuously, blurring boundaries. If anything, the group sounded even more locked in and responsive as an ensemble. The 60-minute set seemed to pass by in what felt like 10 minutes. The group was received enthusiastically by a rather large crowd that stayed around for the end of the second set, well after midnight on a Thursday evening.
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