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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Tony Malaby, Mat Maneri & Daniel Levin - New Artifacts (Clean Feed, 2017) ****½

By Derek Stone

To those familiar with the work of Tony Malaby, it’s no secret what his primary thematic concerns are: as the abundance of Spanish titles and themes suggest, and as Malaby himself states, he’s interested in the “feelings, flavors, scents, panoramas and such” that he experienced growing up in the American Southwest. From the sun-baked soundscapes of Paloma Recio, to the occasional hints of exoticism found in Tamarindo, Malaby has shown that he’s more than capable of bringing those sensations to life. Despite his fascination with the cultural and physical worlds of the Southwest, however, Malaby’s projects have largely remained embedded in jazz tradition; for the most part, the references to Native American culture have been oblique, revealing themselves through atmospheric evocations rather than through any direct embrace of traditional native music. On New Artifacts, that doesn’t really change, but Malaby’s meeting with Mat Maneri and Daniel Levin has shaken things up a bit - the pieces here are wispier, more formless than usual, and often leave jazz tradition behind completely in search of something more elemental and ineffable.

The title track is a fine introduction to the trio’s inimitable approach. Malaby moves from warm, honeyed tones to snarling rasps, from richly melodic lines to raucous ululations. Meanwhile, acting as the ground to Malaby’s shape-shifting figures, Maneri and Levin show why they form one of the greatest partnerships in improvisational jazz today - their playing runs the gamut from densely physical to tremolously quiet, and they are capable of both speedy runs and calmer, more subdued stretches. Some of the best moments on “New Artifacts” occur towards the end, when all three players seem to be pushing themselves to their limits. In these final moments, the creaks and moans that Maneri and Levin produce combine with Malaby’s hoarse calls to form a venomous, whorling stew.

“Creation Story” picks up this same frayed thread, but here Malaby’s switch from tenor to soprano allows for a wider, more versatile performance. He sputters, spits, and squeals his way across the jagged terrain that Maneri and Levin lay at his feet, and the lyricism of the title track gives way to an unsettlingly diverse array of timbres and tones. Similarly, the strings employ a rapid-fire sautillé technique to great effect, thereby pushing Malaby on to even more breathless exertions of strength. The third track, “Freedom from the Known,” is a bit of a respite, with Maneri bowing out long, funereal notes, Levin providing strongly-plucked accents, and Malaby returning to tenor sax for a series of wounded shapes that lend the piece a feeling of world-weary resignation. The “freedom” here is less the exhilarating freedom of discovery, and more the freedom of finally accepting some torturous fate - that of dying of thirst in a desert, perhaps. Finally, “Joe” is the concluding track, a quick burst of nervous energy that wraps up the album nicely.

New Artifacts is an excellent collection of improvisational jazz, one that benefits greatly from the lack of rhythm instruments. How, you might ask? Well, because the players are not “tied down” by percussion, they are free to move about in a world that is, in some ways, “timeless” - they can sprint wildly, crawl around, or stretch out in languorous arcs. 2015’s The Transcendent Function had already familiarized me with Levin and Maneri’s mastery of these kinds of nebular, beatless sound-worlds, but I wasn’t quite sure if I would appreciate Malaby working in such a context. Needless to say, I’m kicking myself for doubting him, because his contributions here are absolutely thrilling.