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Thursday, August 12, 2021

Tony Malaby - Turnpike Diaries Vol. 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5 (Self, 2020 & 2021)

By Stef Gijssels

Who would not want saxophonist Tony Malaby in their band? In the last few years, he has released albums with Satoko Fujii's Orchestra New York, Harris Eisenstadt, Mark Helias, Chris Lightcap, John Hollenbeck, Kris Davis, Jeff Davis, Nick Fraser, Jacob Sacks, Samo Salomon, Rob Burke, Simon Nabotov, Eivind Opsvik, Angelica Sanchez, Tom Rainey, Ches Smith ... and many more. All stellar musicians themselves. In this prolific environment, Tony Malaby launched his own "Turnpike Diaries" series, with albums downloadable via bandcamp. On this series, he invites many of the musicians cited above for improvisations. 

The title comes from the place where the music is recorded, as quoted by Malaby himself on the liner notes: "I started playing sessions on July 6, 2020 with Billy Mintz and John Hebert under a turnpike bridge not far from my home (this is meant literally, see video below). We would play 3 to 4 times a week, slowly more friends began to come to play with me in addition to the trio with Mintz and Hebert. I want to share some of these field recordings with you and want to begin with this session that took place on October 19. My walk to the spot with both horns on my back was so full of joy and anticipation because I was going to throw sound with some of my favorite improvisors and mentors - my “Jefes”. What a nice definition of free jazz. And that is what you get. Enthusiasm, musical joy and stellar musicianship all brought in lengthy and powerful improvisations. He downplays it a little bit. True, this is 'throwing sound with some friends', it's just that the friends happen to be among New York's best musicians, and that the improvisations are very cohesive, coherent and focused. 

On Volume 1, the band consists of Malaby on tenor and soprano, Tim Berne on alto, Mark Helias and Michael Formanek on double bass, and Ches Smith on drums. All five musicians quickly find a natural flow to the music, and the interaction between both saxes is a pleasure to hear, each in their typical style and sound, yet so great together. 

On Volume 2, the band consists of Malaby on tenor and soprano, Michael Formanek on bass and Mark Ferber on drums. This trio gets my preference when I listen to it, but somehow I have the same feeling when I listen to some moments on the other albums. 

On Volume 3, the band consists of Malaby on tenor and soprano, William Parker on bass and tuba, and Billy Mintz on drums. Also this trio deserves a more professional production. What a pleasure to hear. 

On Volume 4, the band consists of Malaby on tenor and soprano, Christopher Hoffman on cello, William Parker on bass, and Billy Mintz on drums. Malaby explains that he prepared "4 themes - most are no more then 2 bars long and were given to Chris the night before", in the assumption that Parker and Mintz did not require any preparation. 

On Volume 5, "Jersey Candombe", the band consists of Malaby on tenor and soprano, Kenny Warren on trumpet, Sean Ali and Brandon Lopez on bass, and Billy Mintz, Ches Smith and Flin van Hemmen on percussion. A Candombe is a Urugayan style of music. The playing is intense. 

I will not review each album in detail, that would bring us too far. This is free jazz in its core concept: experienced musicians meet, improvise and deliver. 

Malaby is indeed a wonderful saxophonist, whose warm signature tone can easily be recognised: he has a special timbre in his sound, a high level of lyricism in his soloing, and a sense of phrasing that often ends in jubilant tones (and sounding sometimes sad and joyful at the same time). Despite his recognisable voice, he is sufficiently inventive to keep the music going, in solid interaction with the various line-ups. Even the longest track on Volume 4 which lasts almost one hour, is something you want to listen to again when it's finished. To me one of the revelations of the series is drummer Billy Mintz, whose crisp and energetic drumming is critical for the overall sound. 

It's interesting to see how the lockdown resulted in different approaches to music: more solo performances, more virtual ensembles, and less live performances. I think Malaby managed to find an interesting solution to perform outdoors with other musicians, even if it is more than sad to see New York's finest musicians perform under these conditions. Despite the environment, the recording quality is surprisingly good. 

Listen and download from Bandcamp: Vol 1, Vol 2, Vol 3, Vol 4, Vol 5

Watch Tony Malaby, John Hébert and Billy Mintz 'under the turnpike' in Jersey City on August 26, 2020. 

Watch Tony Malaby, William Parker and Billy Mintz