Tony Malaby: Visualizing the Sound

by Troy Collins

Tony Malaby, Gerald Cleaver + Ingebrigt Håker Flaten                                         ©2015 Peter Gannushkin

Born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, saxophonist Tony Malaby has become a ubiquitous presence in the Downtown scene since moving to New York nearly two decades ago. Early sideman work with Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band and Fred Hersch’s Quintet quickly established Malaby’s reputation as a versatile interpreter of myriad styles. Although he now focuses on his own projects, he continues to be an integral part of bassist Mark Helias’ Open Loose, as confirmed by the trio’s new CD, The Signal Maker (Intakt).

He currently leads a number of different ensembles, such as Novela, Paloma Recio, Tamarindo and TubaCello, all of which include a rotating roster of regular accomplices. The horn-heavy nonet Novela performs expanded versions of Malaby’s small ensemble tunes, rearranged by pianist Kris Davis, one of his closest associates. The electro-acoustic Paloma Recio translates as “Loud Dove” in Spanish, an appropriate name considering the quartet features renowned electric guitarist Ben Monder as Malaby’s primary foil, supported by Eivind Opsvik on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. Waits also works with Malaby alongside esteemed bassist William Parker in the long-running Tamarindo trio, one of the saxophonist’s most intrepid endeavors.

The one constant in Malaby’s instrumentally diverse efforts is his instantly identifiable sound; doubling on tenor and soprano, Malaby possesses a distinctively burnished timbre across a wide dynamic range. He is capable of incredible restraint, eliciting diaphanous ruminations on the big horn that hover in the hushed tonal range of the flute, while just as easily summoning blistering torrents of overblown multiphonics that transcend the horn’s physical limitations, evoking all manner of metallic distortions. Even on the notoriously difficult soprano, he executes sinuous lines without invoking John Coltrane or Steve Lacy, two of the straight horn’s most often imitated masters.

Malaby has recorded for a number of independent labels as a bandleader, beginning with Sabino, his debut album for Arabesque in 2000, although Clean Feed Records currently issues most of his recent output. His latest offering on the critically acclaimed Portuguese imprint is Scorpion Eater, the first studio recording of TubaCello, featuring cellist Christopher Hoffman and two members of Novela: tuba player Dan Peck and percussionist John Hollenbeck. Much like his other groups, TubaCello explores an array of styles, veering from the punk-inflected frenzy of “Trout Shot” and the increasingly fervent, folksy lyricism of “March (for Izumi)” to the exotic tone poetry of “Beaded Braid” and aleatoric introspection of “Fur.” Intrigued by Malaby’s varied oeuvre, I interviewed him in the winter of 2015.


Troy Collins: Although you’ve been a prominent member of New York’s jazz scene now for well over two decades, your biography indicates you were originally born and raised in Tucson, Arizona. Considering many of your bands have Spanish names, can you explain how your Mexican heritage influences your work as a jazz composer and improviser?

Tony Malaby: It’s by no means in a literal way but in a very abstract one with connections to the feelings, flavors, scents, panoramas and such that I experienced while growing up in the southwest. In practice I use a lot of visualization. If I come up with something new in my practice, I catalogue the images and sensations that the idea or sound generates. Most of the time they are associated with my Mexican heritage – Spanish was my first language, hence the titles. The cataloguing and visualization also take place in performance with my groups. Recently, while playing with Paloma Recio in Arizona, I found so many new ideas to catalogue. For example, Tucson’s pink clouds at sunset in winter; Eivind was bowing long notes in unison with me while Ben and Nasheet floated over us – my spacial sense, flow and sound under them came from the “pink cloud” reference. When I am home or on a train in Germany I can use visualization to recall that zone. I can use it for composition or I can practice improvising in that zone (recalling what the band sounded like, plus the visual reference of the “pink clouds”). It’s how I like to work and I use this as a starting point to generate ideas.

TC: You currently lead at least four unique groups: Novela, Paloma Recio, Tamarindo and Tubacello – all of which are instrumentally quite different from one another. What advantages and challenges do you find in maintaining so many different groups?

TM: Writing for William Parker is very different than writing for Eivind, and Dan Peck does not come from a jazz background. Are these challenges? I love playing with all of them. How do I get the most out of them and not get in their way with too much information – or not enough? Here’s where I go to the card catalogue in my head and recall those experiences with them. Having this kind of diversity keeps me practicing. It’s all good!

TC: Although Novela features re-arrangements of tunes originally written for smaller line-ups, how do you initially approach writing for each of your ensembles? Do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your band mates’ strengths, or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more open to interpretation by different groups of players?

TM: I’m after a type of group vocabulary or group language with each band. It’s up to me to generate the work sheets and exercises to get us conversing. I’m not writing tunes but providing an opening sentence or paragraph. With every group there is a period of playing improvised shows featuring no composition. I do this to generate the ideas I catalogue from our improvisations. For example, (in Tamarindo) William will play triple fortissimo with the bow in a very active manner while I play with a bamboo, hollowed-out tone at a mezzo piano dynamic in a very meditative flow and Nasheet tips right through the whole thing – images begin to enter my head and I know it’s time to put this in the card catalogue. It goes in there with visuals – physical, technical, sensory descriptions – all in a micro second. It’s how I work and it makes recalling that zone so much easier the next day for practice and composition. What I like about this process is that it is a self-generating and very personal approach to developing a group sound. By starting a written piece from one of those zones the improvs evolve from that in a very personal way. Sometimes that piece of paper I bring to Tamarindo will not work, but it will go way beyond my expectations with TubaCello or Paloma Recio. That piece of paper gets the guys into my head. That’s all.

TC: Do you have any background in the visual arts, since so much of your musical inspiration seems to derive from visual sources?

TM: Yeah, before the saxophone took over I studied drawing and painting. My painting of a burro carrying flowers to market won my elementary school’s mural competition. I was in third grade and got to put a crew of my pals together and paint the scene on the side of a tiendita (neighborhood store, or “bodega” out east), but the store was demolished years ago. I was also given a scholarship to study life drawing at the Tucson Museum of Art and was awarded the scholarship for three more years to study watercolor and acrylic and started working with oils as well. At the museum I also saw my first art film in fourth grade. After begging my ass off, my grandfather took me to an outdoor screening of Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu. That changed everything!

TC: I thought so. I studied fine art also, so it’s not hard to detect a likeminded soul when talking about music in such terms. How do personal and stylistic dynamics shape the inner workings of your various groups?

TM: I look for players not trapped by stylistic boundaries. I’m still very attracted to playing in time and creating melodic and harmonic statements, but don’t want it stylized. The players I play with may have a specialized zone they work in most of the time, but that stretch when they bend outside of their comfort zone is where the magic happens. Also, a very important factor for me is energy. Can they bring it? There is so much wonderful music happening at this time but the energy factor seems to be fading.

Everyone I play with has a very distinct sound and feel: Nasheet and Hollenbeck are so different from each other, stylistically, but I never thought of it that way. I just enjoy interacting with both of them and how they deal with each situation. Tamarindo was a reaction to Helias’ Open Loose – I love both! I play in so many bassist-led bands (Helias, Opsvik, Lightcap); TubaCello was a reaction towards that. I’m trying to create environments with musical personalities that really contrast the situations I’m in as a sideman.

TC: Most of your projects feature pre-written material, while some include spontaneous improvisations. What are your thoughts regarding “pure” free improvisation compared to more traditional theme and variations-based strategies?

TM: When I started to open up my concept around 15-20 years ago (experimenting in bands led by Helias, Ehrlich, Pavone, Berne, Dresser, etc.), I became attracted to making the written material sound spontaneously improvised and the improvisations sound organized and composed. These two factors create a whole that I am really fond of and I base each of my groups’ songbooks with this in mind. I love when every night produces a different result. Figuring out the ratio of written versus improvisation is different for each ensemble. Some bands (mostly me!) tend to migrate towards comfort zones and a routine type of choreography after a few nights of pure improvisation. That’s what I am trying to avoid and I find that a sketch-like outline with set zones to migrate towards and play off of are getting me closer to the type of spontaneity I am seeking. Paloma Recio just performed a new 40-50 minute suite in Phoenix and Tucson that will be our next recording. For the most part it’s a lightly traced stencil that we all paint over with a couple of literal areas to offset the painting aspect. That suite is all about what I’m trying to express in words here.

TC: Have you had the opportunity to record the suite in a studio setting yet, and if so, do you have any idea what label might put it out?

TM: Paloma Recio was supposed to record on January 26th after our Arizona shows. We lost the date because of a snow storm and are looking for recording dates in March. Clean Feed is putting it out.

TC: How do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

TM: It’s just another form of “practice” and after so many sessions it becomes natural - like playing a session in my garage with my closest friends. If I can get into that meditative, relaxed state and be in the moment, it doesn’t matter. I adjust and the headphones dissolve and I’m in it. Getting into this state gets easier and easier. As soon as someone hits a drum or starts to tune up I find myself entering into that zone where the images start and I’m just reacting to the sounds and not even listening to myself.

TC: What are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

TM: I really miss record stores and LP covers but lately more and more musicians are giving me their new discs on vinyl. At the same time I receive constant stimulation from friends via the internet. This month’s download exchanges include: flute music from Papua New Guinea; microphones dropped in Arctic waters catching all the whale and dolphin sonar with ice cracking and shifting – glorious!; Coltrane live at the Showboat playing “It’s Easy to Remember” in trio with Roy Haynes and Jimmy Garrison – wow! Last summer or fall I got a call from drummer Mark Ferber saying he heard Jimmy Giuffre’s NY Concerts and I should download it immediately – holy moly! Being a parent, most of my deep listening takes place when I’m away from home – as downloads.

TC: In light of the recording industry’s current complexities, do you find musical inspiration in any technological advances or stylistic movements?

TM: There is a pool of very creative young players at the moment who really challenge me. They are “Formless Form” masters and I am delighted when they make it over to my place to play: trombonist Ben Gerstein, bassist Sean Ali and Pascal Niggenkemper, drummers Flin Van Hemmen and Carlo Costa.

As far as technology is concerned, I’m kind of a stickler for playing the saxophone as natural as can be. I want to be able to generate all the noise and funk on my own without dropping anything down the bell, removing the mouthpiece, processing through laptops – it’s just not who I am. The same goes for the metric math stuff – not who I am. Reaching for sound and being rhythmically natural is all I care about. Having said that I’d like to play with more electronic folk. I have a 10 year-old boy who loves video games. While he plays I improvise to the games’ sound effects, weird loops, quirky conversations and speech patterns; the dynamic range is so big, overall it’s a very unpredictable sound environment – I love it! Recently my friend Jorrit Dijkstra came over with his Lyricon and computer set-up. Again, an unpredictable sound environment (similar to improvising with Andrea Parkins). It’s important to find people who can get you out of those comfort zones and get you to make creative choices.

TC: Your saxophone playing is very distinctive and instantly identifiable (especially on tenor). I can’t imagine you needing or wanting electronic effects to augment your tone, especially considering your masterful embouchure control, which ranges from breathy, flute-like sonorities to bellowing multiphonics. How did you arrive at your particular sound? Did you have any influential teachers or mentors?

TM: I studied classical saxophone beginning my sophomore year in high school and continued for another six or seven years. I developed repertoire with multiphonics and other extended techniques from the classical world. This coincided with trying to develop a personal jazz sound. These two worlds came together when I had the opportunity to take a lesson with Florida jazz pianist and teacher Vince Maggio when he visited Arizona in the early eighties. He talked to me about how he orchestrates with the piano, with one area being his double bass low brass area, moving up into the violins and woodwinds. It made a huge impression on me and I began to expand my tonal color and use visualization to pretend I was playing in a symphonic setting or playing with Elvin Jones or Paul Motian.

TC: What projects do you have planned for the immediate future?

TM: Paloma Recio is recording “Incantations,” the suite I mentioned above, on March 16 for Clean Feed. Jorrit Dijkstra and I plan to continue with the Lyricon and laptop approach and will premier a trio this coming summer at the Driff label festival in Boston (Driff is Dijkstra’s label). I recorded last year with Jason Roebke and Frank Rosaly and would love to make more music with them. I have also talked to Kris Davis about arranging the next Novela project for 2016/2017.

To see more photographs by Peter Gannushkin, visit:

© 2015 Troy Collins

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