Saxophonist Tony Malaby's unlikely pandemic practice space: the New Jersey Turnpike

Jan 13, 2022
Originally published on January 13, 2022 9:10 am

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For more than 25 years, Tony Malaby has been one of the most riveting saxophonists in jazz — a dauntless explorer who's also at home with direct emotional expression. His ability to toggle between traditional and experimental modes has been a trademark since he released an auspicious debut album, Sabino, at the turn of the century.

Since then, Malaby has distinguished himself in any number of musical situations that call for an inside-out proficiency, from Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band to Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra to Mark Helias' aptly named trio Open Loose. His body of work as a leader traces a similar line, whether he's working with three pieces (as in Adobe, featuring Motian and bassist Drew Gress) or as many as nine (on Novela, arranged by pianist Kris Davis).

Not quite two years ago, on March 3, 2020, Malaby joined two regular collaborators, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Tom Rainey, for a gig in Greenwich Village. Recorded for release as Live at 55 Bar, this freely improvised performance highlights a shared commitment to spontaneity and an equally strong investment in listening as an active pursuit. By Malaby's reckoning, it was also where he picked up the coronavirus, becoming one of the earliest COVID cases in his musical peer group.

"I got violently ill two days later," he recalls, "and I was down for about two-and-a-half weeks. It took me months to get up to 15 minutes of playing the tenor. I would start feeling like I was going to pass out."

For a saxophonist, especially someone known for the strength of his projection, this was more than a little destabilizing. We knew so little about COVID-19 in March of 2020, and even less about the path to recovery. Factor in a fast-moving tally of losses in the jazz community, and you can begin to imagine Malaby's concern. He also ran into a practical obstacle: under lockdown conditions, he couldn't practice without disturbing his neighbors. "Everybody's in the building. And everybody's on edge, and the minute I would start, there'd be knocks on the door or the phone would ring."

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At the time, Malaby lived in Jersey City. As we entered our first COVID summer, he landed on an unorthodox solution: Through a drummer friend, Billy Mintz, he'd discovered a spot under a New Jersey Turnpike overpass, near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. He started practicing there, appreciating the space and freedom but also pleasantly struck by its acoustic properties.

If the broad strokes of this story sound familiar, you may be thinking of a famous parallel: tenor titan Sonny Rollins did something similar in the late 1950s and early '60s, practicing on a pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. (That decision, which almost instantly became a part of Rollins lore, recently inspired a grassroots petition and even a children's book.) But Malaby wasn't just looking for a place to strengthen his sound, and he wasn't seeking solitude. Like many of us in the summer of 2020, he was desperate for connection. So he began to invite his fellow musicians over for regular sessions, as often as a few times a week. His initial partners were Mintz and bassist John Hébert, but the circle soon expanded to others in the creative music ecosystem.

The musicians who convened under the Turnpike weren't playing for an audience, and they certainly weren't playing for compensation. But a freelance engineer, Randy Thaler, caught wind of what was happening and soon began making field recordings. "When I went the first time, Randy was setting up his gear," recalls Michael Formanek, a bassist who has played on and off with Malaby since the late '90s. "So he was there already, and I was just looking around going, like, What is this? This is like this bizarre, you know, kind of Apocalypse Now in the tunnels, and almost like a movie set in another way because it was so over-the-top, you know, with graffiti and dirt and stuff all over the ground." He remembers seeing a pack of skateboarders down the block and feeling trucks rumble overhead. "But everyone was just there to play," he says. "It just felt great. And it actually sounded surprisingly good."

Formanek appears — along with Helias, drummer Ches Smith, and alto saxophonist Tim Berne — on Malaby's Turnpike Diaries Volume 1, the first in a series of Bandcamp releases chronicling these sessions. (At last count, he was up to five.) Like so much else that the creative music community has produced over the last 18 months, it will stand as a time capsule and a testament. But there was also a renewal of purpose that Malaby carried forward.

One thing he had missed during his year-long turnpike residency was the sound of a harmonic instrument — in particular, the liquid dynamism of Monder's electric guitar. He found himself thinking about Sabino, which featured Formanek and Rainey with another incredible guitarist, Marc Ducret. So Malaby's new studio album, The Cave of Winds, is credited to Sabino, with Monder now in the mix. It reaches both forward and back, building on the same social impulse that guided his turnpike sessions, and exploring the open-ended yet focused style that these musicians know as a common language.

There are subtle signposts on the album that connect to the jazz tradition, though Malaby doesn't easily show his hand. "Corinthian Leather," a swinging opener, makes some structural allusions to the Dizzy Gillespie composition "Woody 'n' You." The closing track, "Just Me, Just Me," bears a similar relationship to the standard "Just You, Just Me" (which Thelonious Monk notably refashioned into his own piece, "Evidence").

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Malaby, who recently relocated to Boston to join the faculty at the Berklee College of Music, firmly believes in forging a relationship to the jazz tradition, along with the permissive elasticity of those bonds. "It's playing with the tension between these two worlds, which is what has always appealed to me," he says. "And it's gratifying, knowing I have found the right people."

Correction: 1/12/22

This story originally identified pianist Angelica Sanchez as Malaby's wife.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

By now, we've heard a few variations on the pandemic lockdown record release. Most were produced in a bedroom or adapted from a livestream or just made with the benefit of all that extra downtime. Now a noted jazz artist has a new album that puts a fresh spin on that idea. Nate Chinen from Jazz Night in America and member station WBGO has that story.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY MALABY'S "CORINTHIAN LEATHER")

NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: For more than 25 years, Tony Malaby has been one of the most riveting saxophonists in jazz, a dauntless explorer who's also at home with direct emotional expression. His ability to toggle between traditional and experimental modes has been a trademark since he released an auspicious debut album, "Sabino," at the turn of the century.

More recently, in March of 2020, Malaby made a live recording at the 55 Bar in New York with two longtime collaborators, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Tom Rainey.

TONY MALABY: And I got violently ill two days later, and I was down for about 2 1/2 weeks. And it took me months to get up to 15 minutes of playing the tenor. I would start feeling like I was going to pass out.

CHINEN: It was just as he feared.

MALABY: I had COVID early on.

CHINEN: For a saxophonist, especially someone known for the strength of his projection, this was more than destabilizing. Remember how little we knew about COVID-19 in those early weeks, let alone how many jazz musicians we lost, and you can imagine Malaby's concern.

MALABY: And at the same time, you're dying to practice and play, but everybody's home. Everybody's in the building, and everybody's on edge. And the minute I would start, there'd be knocks on the door or the phone would ring.

CHINEN: By that summer, he'd begun playing beneath an overpass of the New Jersey Turnpike near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHINEN: If that story sounds vaguely familiar, it has a famous parallel. Jazz titan Sonny Rollins pursued a similar tactic in the late 1950s and early '60s on a pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. But Malaby wasn't just looking for a place to strengthen his sound, and he wasn't seeking solitude. Like many of us in the summer of 2020, he was desperate for connection. So he began to invite his fellow musicians over for regular sessions as often as a few times a week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHINEN: Bassist Michael Formanek recalls his shock the first time he rolled up to the spot.

MICHAEL FORMANEK: And I was just looking around going, like, what is this? This is like this bizarre kind of "Apocalypse Now" in the tunnels - and almost like a movie set in another way because it was so over-the-top, you know, with graffiti and dirt and stuff all over the ground. And, (laughter) you know, it was pretty - you know, pretty amazing.

CHINEN: Malaby recorded many of these sessions and released some of them as a series of digital albums called "The Turnpike Diaries." The first volume features Formanek and a handful of others, like saxophonist Tim Berne.

Malaby kept the party going for an entire year. And when it was time to return to a proper recording studio, he took that renegade hospitality with him. His new album, "The Cave Of Winds," features a quartet with Formanek, Monder and Rainey, expanding on the open-ended yet focused style that is their common language.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY MALABY'S "CORINTHIAN LEATHER")

CHINEN: For Malaby, who recently moved to Boston to teach at the Berklee College of Music, the new album reaches both forward and back. It reunites most of the band from "Sabino" and builds on the same social impulse that guided those turnpike sessions. Its defining trait is a spirit of unfolding intrigue that Malaby has always prized.

MALABY: There's aspects of it that - it's really hard to talk about. And when you play with somebody who's playing from that place, it's enthralling. It's full of mystery. It's full of this magic, I mean, that got me into improvising.

CHINEN: And as we continue to feel our way through the pandemic timeline, we'll take whatever magic we can get.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Chinen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY MALABY'S "CORINTHIAN LEATHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.