I’ve been hooked on Tony Malaby’s 2011 Cleanfeed record ‘Novela’ for a couple of weeks now. It’s a fresh listen with a fresh concept. The album is co-credited to pianist Kris Davis who put in the hard yards in and gave new life to these previously recorded Malaby tunes. She rearranged the tunes for rhythm section + jazzy wind ensemble of sorts- a nonent in fact, featuring Malaby on soprano and tenor saxophones, Michael Attias on alto, Andrew Hadro on baritone, Joachim Badenhorst playing bass clarinet, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ben Gerstein playing trombone (ma boi!), Kris Davis on piano and arranging, John Hollenbeck playing drums and Dan Peck on tuba.
Malaby has a good sized discography as a leader (14 albums deep, I believe) as well as some heavy sideman-ing, and I have by no means delved deep into it. I own/dig Tamarindo Live (featuring Wadada), an early 2000’s Mark Helias’ Open Loose trio album (Atomic Clock?) and have briefly checked out the old Tamarindo album. Probably my most credible interaction with his music were the three or four gigs he lead and/or sideman-ed that I saw in NYC.
From what I’ve heard, I’m generally a fan. Although, well, sometimes he can be a bit ah, emphatic for my liking? Like all the guys in that contemporary improvised scene he’s a true technician that wields a broad palette of sounds beyond his full, round, brawny tenor tone (he also smashes the sop). I dig all of that heaps. He’s not afraid to throw some sonic pies in the face, and doesn’t mind keeping the intensity right up there for the majority of a set. Being the sensualist I am, that isn’t always my cup of tea.
Maybe that’s why I’m such a fan of Novela. Kris Davis’ re-workings allows me/the listener more ground to stand on with small insertion of tasteful harmonic and melodic figures. I imagine this is in large part due to the instrumentation which lends itself to those sorts of compositional devices… i.e chords and melodies. Plus the humanised, air-filled timbres of the wind section provides soft edges to the music’s sonic blows that have in the past been thrown (and supported) by the harder, more abrasive percussive knocks and low frequency thumps of his go to trio format of drum and bass.
Um, did I just sound like an jazz music reviewer? Eww, sorry.
Malaby’s music, like much from that NYC side of the scene, is one that reveals its true beauty when you provide your full attention and empty your ego. It’s shapes, it’s textures, it’s nature and it’s nurture. There are many moments for me when it glitters but at this time and place, Davis’ interpretations glitter with more consistency to my ears.
From the album, I’ve taken a particular likening to track two: Floral and Herbacious. I dig the story it tells with the juxtaposition of three distinct sections. I dig the crescendo at the end because I am the world’s biggest sucker for long, drawn out rises in intensity. I dig how in that crescendo they link up into a bass/drum groove, a not-so-common happening for that circle of peeps, I dare say. I really dig what Malaby does in the middle section with his unaccompanied solo. His signature shrieks and squeals are made to sit in this vast space and come across particularly humanistic and raw here. I also dug the two melody lines he plays above the crescendo, simplistic beauties. Oh yeah, I also dig Ralph Alessi’s sweet and melancholy tones at the top, too.
I dug it all so much I transcribed the tune. I can see a band I hope to soon form playing an interpretation of the tune. Whilst transcribing, I thought it a smart move to give the original version ‘Floral and Herbacious’ (note the slight spelling different in the titles of the two versions) from the first Tamarindo Trio (from 2007 featuring Williams Parker on Bass and Nasheet Waits on drums) a whirl. Comparing the two versions could aid in deducing which parts of the tune were common and therefore likely composed.These guys are masters of blurring the two spheres so what sounds improvised may be composed and viceversa. It’s a skill I definitely aim to keep developing. So deducting the differences from the pair would surely give me some insight I thought…
Ahhhh, not so much. Listening to the Tamarindo trio version I was shocked how different the two takes were! It was like an opaque reflection of the Novela version- in that yeah, sure, it’s form was comparable but the details were a different beast all together.
I deduced that there is a three part form found in both, although it’s less clear on Tamarindo and so I may just be projecting that idea onto the music for all I know- eek. Part one of both feature a melody that is fleshed out between more parts in Novela but very much true to the original. Part two is a bit up for grabs, but I reckon Davis swapped out a free bass/drum play for a unaccompanied tenor-gone-wild solo. Part three though is a true doozy. In Novella you have the big-ass crescendo featuring a drums and bass hook up and two vocal-like tenor melodies at it’s apex. The trio version is far more open to interpretation. There is a less clearly shaped build with no bass line + no tenor melodies. A high pitched apex still exists though. Hmmmmm.
Armed with my jazz degree skill set 😉 I’ve constructed a comparison chart with arrows connecting parts I believe are of the same essence. It’s not a load more insightful than the synopsis above but you can’t say no to a comparison chart, amiright? Both recordings are just below for you to follow along at home [Also, the fact I’m using them aside, what’s up with youtube chucking every song it knows of into a video? Another way to grab free music. Kind of shitty for the artists??]
I have a few broad comments to make from it all. Firstly, my guess is that Davis took some strong artistic liberties arranging these Malaby tunes, especially towards the back end. It seems she’s partly solidified, partly developed Malaby’s melodic and harmonic ideas to work with the larger horn-focused ensemble. An example being the third section of the Novela version, where she employs the tenor’s counter melody from the first part [C,D,Ab] of her arrangement -which was originally part of Malaby’s Tamarindo melody- as the bassline for her third section and employs the chromatic ascending/descending bassline of part one as a counter melody for part three. Make sense? Noice! My other guess is that Malaby writes fairly openly. I’m thinking textural cues and small melodic ideas that he usually plays fragmented and/or abstracted.
Look, it’s not super insightful but don’t say I didn’t try. On top of my cutting edge comparison chart I also scoured the net for some live footage of the Tamarindo trio playing the tune but no duece- either that or it was so distorted during a live playing I didn’t even recognise it, which is not unlikely actually. There was no footage of the Novela version either. Although, hearing the set at Ibeam (posted below) and considering how close to the recording the tunes on the video is, it only furthers my hypothesis that much of the material was written and forms were less expendable than with the trio.
I have though hunt down some quotes of Malaby discussing both his Tamarindo trio + his compositional process, which is probably the most insightful bit of it all. Below is a excerpt from an interview from Jazzrightnow where Tony elaborates on how he ‘constructs from the vibe’:
“TM…And then Pedro from Clean Feed [Records] said, “Do you want to record that?”, and I said yeah, and then I decided to write for that session just from experiences I had playing with them. You know, different types of zones that I experienced with them you know, with William playing in this register doing this with a bow, Nasheet kind of in this kind of flow. You know, and I was playing in the upper register kind of wailing you know like a crying baby and just cataloging these things as they would happen when we would be improvising in these gigs. And then use these as a template for how to start a tune and then write a composition with these.
CB: Sounds fascinating, so you guys obviously played together for a while and then you constructed compositional elements based on bits and pieces you selected.
TM: Yeah, I mean kind of constructing from the vibe you know.
CB: That’s fascinating.
CB: So how much do you actually write out or is it sort of a frame of mind that you kind of compose?
TM: It’s all notated.
CB: I see.
TM: Just really trying to notate the zone in a way and give it what’s the rhythm thing, how can these guys from looking at this and playing it the first time, how fast can we get into that zone? So I would have to edit it down to just get the essence of the lines so that you don’t have to talk about it and you don’t have to describe it, and just work our way back to that thing. The process of that is sometimes even better than the original thing. Just finding a way with it and that’s what I love about this band is there is no rush with that type of development.”
V interesting indeed. So it sounds like even though he notates everything, Malaby’s compositional material is more suggestive than final. Also the ‘zones’ concept is some v interesting stuff too. Simon Barker enlightened me to this concept of ‘zones’ in our ensemble class at the Con last year. I believe he referred to them as ‘snapshots’. It’s essentially bookmarking a sonic texture. It could be used as impetus for a composition as Malaby said or as a starting point for an improvisation as Simon suggested. A truly great way of forming music; playing free and open and letting the successes of that play form the band’s compositions or vocabulary.
He discusses the ‘zones’ concept again in another interview I found. This interview is centred around his 2013 double drummer group ‘Apparitions’ (at the time featuring Tom Rainey, Drew Gress and Michael Sarin).
“Just from playing at the Internet Cafe in different combinations there was a lot of vocabulary that was developed and codified with each of these guys. I decided to try to create platforms for my favorite “zones” that we’d developed or would hit on. So for example, a multi-layered zone where the four of us are each playing in our own pulse or dimension in time, or a very transparent zone where it’s cymbals/mallets/brushes and I’m playing flute-like and Drew’s playing arco. And the question is how am I going to get this into a composition, how am I going to structure it? A lot of it for me was hiding the composition within these zones, and now it’s just second nature for us all in making all of this seamless. It’s a new aesthetic that’s been around for a while now, and I’ve been really fortunate in having the experience to fall into this approach by playing in bands led by Mark Helias, Tim Berne, Mark Dresser, Mike Formanek, Mat Maneri. Zones like the burning energy thing, the scratch-and-sniff transparency, or different orchestration possibilities cross-fading each other, for example Sarin and I emerge out of a duo between Tom and Drew or vice versa.”
Regardless having already been introduced to the concept of zones, gaining that sort of insight into the processes of those artists is really fucking awesome. Wowza. It’s great to confirm that those heavy guys mentioned above compose and direct at least in part with that bookmarked/snapshot/zone style. There are some other golden nuggets from this particular interview worth sharing, including:
“A big part of the aesthetic is that the composition is hidden, and the improv is equally hidden… Tom, Mike and Drew are masters at creating this effect, because they can absorb the material very quickly and are then able to abstract it and deconstruct it, they create another layer over the written material, even as they perform it…Musicians in my generation more and more are able to improvise on form, harmony, changes, difficult forms and changes, and not rely on the bebop vernacular or cliche lines to get you through these structures. So I’m not afraid of mixing in compositions that are tunes, I know that we’ll interpret them a different way every time. Often I don’t have to set harmonic parameters, I know it’s going to be fine, and we’re free to go wherever the music takes it, including back inside.”
That first bit confirms what I was saying before about these guys being masters of blurring the improvised and composed worlds. I actually love when these guys do play ‘tunes’ because those times as a listener when you are familiar with the form and/or melody, it allows you the capacity to contextualise the true artistry of what these guys are capable of; the way they they interpret and subvert material. Make dots and lines on a white page like a running creek or a living breathing rainforest.
So what did this lil exercise reveal after all that? Well, definitively? Not too much. I think we could say that Malaby composes in a mostly open and directional manner, as opposed to the more prescriptive nature of writing i.e. playing the dots exactly as written. It was probably his compositional nature that allowed Davis to take some bold artistic liberties (that sound great!!). It was also a solid reminder of composing with zones/snapshots, or even jamming with the intention of collecting zones. There are many sonic scenarios we just can’t conjure purely inside our head and the collaborative ‘zone’ process is one of the best ways to find them. Not everything has to be dots and lines guysss. I imagine the last minute of the Tamarindo version where Parker is bowing up real high and Malaby is screeching the same note in his altissimo, that was highly likely a ‘zone’.
To finish, here is a live set of Malaby/Davis’ Novela live @ Ibeam. It’s really, really good. Some stretching out but still very close to the studio recordings. A excerpt from the second set is also on vimeo for those interested. Enjoy.