Artistically Naked

Tucson native Tony Malaby is one of the best improvisational musicians in all of contemporary jazz. This weekend, he's coming home.

Even if you didn't know that jazz saxophonist Tony Malaby is a native Tucsonan, it might be possible to guess from the titles of some his compositions: "Sabino," "Adobe Blues," "Gate's Pass" and "Picacho."

Although Malaby, 40, and his wife/musical partner, pianist Angelica Sanchez, have lived in the New York City area for almost a decade, Malaby holds Southern Arizona dear to his heart. He still finds the desert inspiring.

"I think the intensity of New York--just where I live, it's noisy and dirty and crowded--combined with the type of person that I am--I have really extended antennae, and everything is filtering into me way too much--is just really overwhelming," he says.

"One of the ways to shut that down is to visualize and meditate on where I come from, the physical beauty of the things and places out there. It's going to back to where you live, where you grew up. And when I am able to get there, that's where I am really able to compose and tap into that really free space where we all want to love, where all of us who are creative people want to live."

For Malaby, calling to mind the Tucson area--"the way the desert smells after rain, the monsoons, the dry air, the physical environment"--is a portal to "that place of creativity."

Tony Malaby has been playing saxophone for about 30 years. After getting his early training in Tucson and later as a music student at Arizona State University, Malaby has evolved into one of the most promising tenor saxophonists on the so-called "downtown" New York scene.

As a bandleader, he has several solo albums to his name (including two, Adobe and Apparitions, released back-to-back during the last six months) and dozens of credits on the recordings of fellow out-there musicians such as Tim Berne, Paul Motian, Michael Formanek, George Schuller and Marty Ehrlich.

Those names may not be familiar to the average pop music fan, or even to aficionados who restrict their listening to the Billboard jazz charts. But those folks are some of the giants in today's avant-garde jazz world, and Malaby is approaching that status.

Malaby will return to his hometown to perform this Saturday night, April 17--the same night as the Weekly's Club Crawl--at the Mat Bevel Institute, as part of a trio that includes Sanchez on piano and longtime compatriot Tom Rainey on drums.

Judging from past Malaby performances, it's likely to be a monster of a show. Such was apparently the case when Malaby and company recently played a brief Midwest tour.

While in Chicago, the trio played a well-received concert at the Chicago Cultural Center. Howard Reich, jazz critic for the Chicago Tribune, seemed to really "get" Malaby's sound and approach.

Of that gig, Reich wrote, " ... Tony Malaby has to be one of the most fluid improvisers working in a 'free jazz' idiom, though, in truth, his work transcends even that classification. For though Malaby offered plenty of noise-driven soliloquies and novel sonic effects, he also drew unabashedly on bebop and post-bop harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Moreover, just when the listener began to decode Malaby's improvisational techniques, the man darted into unexpected territory, offering austerely expressive melodies not usually encountered among players with comparably avant-garde leanings."

For those readers not fluent in criticspeak, he means that Malaby is not just a cold brainiac playing dissonant music according to some obscure theory or formula. This is a musician who remains engaging, interesting and--dare one utter the word in improvisational circles--entertaining, while demonstrating an adventurous sense of experimentation with solid grounding in classical technique and tradition.

The Village Voice, Down Beat, JazzTimes, Time Out New York and All About Jazz also have chimed in about Malaby's talents since he arrived in New York City in 1995.

Ben Ratliff, the esteemed critic for The New York Times, in fact, called Malaby "a schooled, poetic player who gets involved with the density and shape of his notes ... . (He) is worth hearing for a lesson on where the lines are best drawn between abstraction and form."

Not bad for a kid from a Spanish-speaking home in Tucson's westside Barrio Hollywood.

Malaby's first saxophone was an alto--he had yet to discover the tenor--because that seat was empty in the John Spring Junior High School jazz band.

The director of that group, Jim Nordgren, not only took Malaby to his first rock concert (Tower of Power and the Average White Band at what was then called the Tucson Community Center Arena), but he introduced the young sax player to jazz and the concepts of improvisation.

The jazz band would meet during the lunch hour behind a curtain on the cafeteria stage, Malaby says. Everybody got to listen.

Malaby says Nordgren had him improvising from the get-go.

"He got us into the 'anything goes' mode. He would show us a tune and say, 'Why don't you just blow?' He really helped me learn at a young age how to play though this melody and play with this melody and play completely away from this one."

Often, serious music students don't get the opportunity to improvise until later in their studies, and then it takes a lot of letting go to feel the flow of playing spontaneously.

"Nobody ever told me that was something that was hard to do," says Malaby. "I am so lucky I was just introduced to that part so young. I never felt inhibited about that; I never felt I couldn't explore."

Nordgren, who has lived in Las Vegas for the last 25 years, remembers Malaby well, having taught him at the elementary-school age, in addition to junior high. Nordgren was fresh out of college and new to teaching when he started working with the young Malaby, whom he calls his one claim to fame.

"I couldn't have had a better training ground as a new teacher than with Tony and his crew from Manzo (Elementary) and Spring. Tony was amazing from the very start," says Nordgren, who now teaches computers and helps out with the jazz band at a middle school in the Clark County School District.

"One year, I had ordered an arrangement of a tune with a trumpet solo. At the time, I didn't have a trumpet player who could play the solo. So Tony asked if he could take it home and practice with it. I told him it was in the wrong key for alto. Long story short, he took the music home and transposed it from trumpet to alto sax, not an easy thing to do. I asked him how he learned to transpose. His reply was, 'I checked out a book last summer and figured it out.'"

Malaby's studies continued when he went to Tucson High School, where he encountered jazz-band director Lou Rodriguez, who exposed the young saxman to Charlie Parker.

Rodriguez also was instrumental in two pivotal events of the young Malaby's musical life. First, he brought the great tenor player Dexter Gordon to Tucson High for a master class in the band room Malaby's senior year.

"That was what really made me realize that's what I wanted to do," Malaby says today. "It was the first time I saw that close and personal the kind of sound I had only heard before, that kind of power. It was being really touched by (Gordon's) presence that made be want to do this for the rest of my life."

Rodriguez also obtained a scholarship from the Tucson Unified School District fine arts department for Malaby--still in high school--to study classical technique with University of Arizona music professor Elizabeth Ervin.

"The main thing I got from Libby is a real professional, musical perspective. She made me aware of my instincts and sharpened my technique. And she worked with me on my phrasing--how to phrase a melody, how to breathe, how to 'sing' through the melody, how to find a line. She taught me how to take playing to the next step."

Also back then, Malaby says, he used take breaks from the Tucson High campus and head over to North Fourth Avenue, where he would sneak into gigs by Greg Armstrong and Mike Porter, both established saxophonists who encouraged the younger player.

"I was just a kid, but those guys always gave me the time of day."

When college called in 1982, Malaby chose ASU, because renowned pianist Chuck Marohnic headed jazz studies in the music department.

"At the U of A, the type of music I really wanted to pursue wasn't really happening. Lou Rodriguez was always telling me about Chuck Marohnic, who had played with all the jazz greats, who is really intense about jazz, so I went.

"The amazing thing about ASU at that time was that there were so many serious musicians there. I mean, there were a good seven to eight rhythm sections. There was an incredible pianist whenever you needed to play with one and great bass players and drummers."

Malaby calls this the most important stage of his jazz development. It was also during this period that Malaby switched to tenor sax.

At 20, he picked up his college roommate's tenor and tried it out.

"It seemed more comfortable to me than the alto, and it had a range that made me feel comfortable and content. It felt like it could take me to where I was going more and more."

There's something magical about the tenor sax; it draws the most powerful players--Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, James Carter, David Murray, the aforementioned Gordon and Berne. Malaby is part of that tradition.

Of the tenor he says, "It's just easy to get to the point of free expression with it. For me, it is a very natural instrument to get that level of expression where you are communicating in a pure way."

After college, Malaby made his first foray into the New York jazz scene, where he played with organist Joey DeFrancesco (who has since relocated to the Phoenix area) and the Mingus Big Band, dedicated to the work of the late, great bassist-composer Charles Mingus (who, coincidentally, was born in Nogales, Ariz.).

At the same time, he studied bebop with tenor great Joe Lovano at William Patterson University. After that, he spent a couple years living back in Tucson and Phoenix.

Malaby first met his future wife during his undergraduate years: a then-14-year-old Phoenix high school student named Angelica Sanchez. He moonlighted teaching jazz at her school.

Malaby says he was intrigued by Sanchez, because she was a combination of Joan Baez and Molly Ringwald.

"I took some lessons with him and used to go hear him play," Sanchez told the New Jersey Star-Ledger last year. "I was madly in love with him, but I was a kid--what was I going to do?"

When, during in the early '90s, Malaby returned from his first stint in New York, he met Sanchez again; she was an ASU student and he an instructor. They fell in love and have been together ever since, moving to New York together in 1995 and getting married three years later.

Now 31 and an accomplished composer and pianist, Sanchez has received many accolades and much attention from the jazz community for her debut CD, Mirror Me, which was released last year. Naturally, the album features her husband, as well as drummer Rainey.

It's not hard to imagine that there's a lot of music in the Malaby-Sanchez household. There, you can hear music by classical composers Scriabin and Ligeti, rock band Radiohead, country singer Johnny Cash, jazz musicians from Lucky Thompson to Martial Solal, and Latin artists such as Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé and Julieta Venegas.

Although they both have projects apart, Malaby and Sanchez find their best work often is together.

"Angie listens to me practice, and I have been listening to her practice for years. We are just very attuned to each other. There are things that happen on a very deep level that are very unconscious. It's that way for the whole trio. I just think that there's an amazing, beautiful recognition between (us), and that includes Rainey. It's about feeling safe to explore any ideas. The hook has always been there--it's natural."

In fact, a representation of the trio's music can be found on the recent, independently released Alive in Brooklyn CD. It marks only the second time, back in September, when Malaby, Sanchez and Rainey played together --just the three of them, without a net--in a fully improvised setting. Nothing rehearsed, no pre-composed songs. Artistically naked, as Malaby likes to say.

Just as they'll be when they perform in Tucson this week.

Malaby feels that his upbringing in the Old Pueblo--not known as a hotbed of avant-garde jazz--actually contributed to his growth as a musical artist.

"That's something I really treasure about having grown up Arizona: You have to forge your own path. You have to really teach yourself, with the encouragement of others, the right people. You had to really love music to keep doing it. I know that Angie feels the same way about Phoenix--she got to forge her own path.

"A lot of times, people who grew up in cities that had a really developed jazz scene with lots of teachers and lots of traffic, and so many musicians with so much agenda, they give in to the pressures around them (and) are maybe not influenced in the right ways. You know, the idea that you're not hip if you don't (have) these records."

When Malaby, Sanchez and Rainey play the Mat Bevel Institute, it will be as part of Jazz at the Institute, a 7-year-old series of improvisational concerts produced by local group Zeitgeist.

The series, at which Malaby has played several times, exists to keep experimental and improvisational jazz alive in Tucson, and the audience tends to be a small, albeit fiercely loyal, bunch.

"I can't emphasize enough what an incredible job Zeitgeist is doing as part of a the Tucson community and as a part of the jazz community. Without them, there would be no concerts like this in Tucson."

Steve Hahn, Zeitgeist's artistic director and the music director at KUAT radio, long has observed the jazz scene all over the world from his outpost in Tucson. Hahn says he feels privileged to have witnessed Malaby's evolution.

"It's been a real joy to see him develop as an artist, to hear him find his own voice in his life-long apprenticeship to jazz," says Hahn, adding some praise for Malaby's integrity.

"Paying your dues is the cliché, but there really aren't any shortcuts when you commit yourself to the art rather than merely finding a way to make a living as a musician, which is hard enough."

Hahn says Malaby showed a lot of personal courage back in the early '90s when he turned his back on a mainstream, "young lions" kind of career.

"He felt like he needed to really plumb the depths of his own personal creativity, no matter where it took him," says Hahn.

And it's taking him around the world.

Malaby's got a full slate scheduled for summer. He'll go back and forth to Portugal, Norway, Sweden and France to play several times with various combinations of musicians, leading his own groups and playing with those of others.

In June, he will embark on a six-week tour of the European jazz festivals with legendary bassist Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra. Then, in the fall, there's a tour of the American Midwest with Sanchez and Rainey, followed by separate tours with bassist Mark Helias and pianist Fred Hersch.

"Right now, I am basically booked through the first week in January," Malaby says.

He's becoming used to the schedule, though.

Sadly, Malaby won't be able to stay in Tucson long this weekend. The night before performing here, the trio will have played a gig in New York City; the night following, they are expected in San Diego.

"This last period of three weeks, I have worked every day, sometimes twice a day when I was giving a workshop. This it the busiest year I have ever had."

It's pretty clear he wouldn't want it any other way.

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