As both bandleaders and sidemen, saxophonist Tony Malaby, guitarist Ben Monder, and drummer Nasheet Waits can instantly make their presences felt with rich tones and decisive gestures. In a collective trio, they make spontaneous compositions built on two decades of collaboration.
The trio will convene at The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 29 for two sets. Before the shows, we caught up with Tony Malaby by phone to talk about his history with Monder and Waits, his methods for breaking out of improvisational tendencies, and the influence of drummer Paul Motian.
The Jazz Gallery: I’d like to hear about how you and Ben first met, and how your musical relationship has come together over the years.
Tony Malaby: I met Ben in 1995 or ‘96. I remember it was at the Tap Bar at the Knitting Factory. I had just moved here from Arizona and I had heard Ben on a record—a Marc Johnson record called Right Brain Patrol. There was this break that Ben played on a blues nad it was just insane. I was just, “Wow! What is that? Who is this guy?” Then sure enough I’m playing in one of the rooms at the Knitting Factory and then he’s sitting at the bar. I go up and say, “Hey, you’re Ben Monder. I’ve been listening to this record and my favorite part is this one break you play,” and I said that I have a feeling that we’re going to play together someday. I said it really cocky [laughs]!
I think the next thing is that we ended up in Guillermo Klein’s band. We did a recording and then I just started playing sessions with Ben, and playing with other in other people’s bands with him.
TJG: Didn’t you both overlap in Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band?
TM: Oh yeah—that came a little bit later. I used to play at this place called the Internet Cafe on 3rd Street in the East Village. That’s where I started putting together a lot of my own bands and projects, including a quartet with Ben. The band eventually dissolved and then the next thing was the Motian band.
TJG: One of your longer-term projects with Ben is the band Paloma Recio. In the liner notes to the band’s first record, you talk about wanting to orchestrate the band in a different way. What do you mean by that and how do you go about it in your work with Ben?
TM: I started proposing different strategies for how Ben framed me and really trying to get away from straight accompaniment. We could be improvising at different speeds or tempos. We both have really mid-range-y, dark sounds, and so we experiment with tessitura, what the sound is like if we go higher or lower. Really exploring a lot of different kinds of textures.
A lot of this came from playing free improv gigs and me remembering certain sounds that we would hit that were incredible, and then making them the group’s main themes. The music really grows out of improvisation. I’ll then make some graphic scores. I’ve really gotten away from giving Ben chord changes. When the band started, I gave him too much information, and the same goes with Nasheet. The goal is always trying to make it a certain type of tension, which comes from not getting framed the same way every time.
TJG: In any improvisational context, I feel that it’s really easy to return to the same kinds of musical ideas or relationships that have worked before. Is your approach a means of getting out of those tendencies?
TM: Definitely. In a lot of different bands, I felt that I was being framed the same way all the time. People would get me in their sights and then they would hunt me down with pedal points, or with the same kind of harmony. A big thing for me is using time notation, like stay with this cell or texture or idea for 2 to 5 minutes. This is something that I’m teaching a lot now in my residencies—how to really get away from your shtick, especially comping shtick.
TJG: I feel that these kinds of tendencies can come from everyone in a group being reactive and just listening moment to moment, rather than instigating ideas and having a sense of larger structures. Is that something that you have to work on in this group?
TM:I feel that Ben and I have created this vocabulary where we shake each other up. And we’re totally in the moment, but we can decide to take a piss on it and hang onto an idea or abandon it. If Ben starts playing a certain pattern, or if he’s a certain type of tessitura or if he just turned on one of his effects, there are ways in which I respond automatically. What I’m learning is to not take that initial response, and then wait a little longer. When I take that moment, I start hearing what I was going to play against what Ben is doing, and then a bigger and better idea comes. Having that kind of patience and waiting, that type of spatial sense, is something I’m really working on right now. It also gives Ben more room to work with his lines, and not interrupt something that can grow into something really crazy and beautiful.
TJG: With this band’s instrumentation of saxophone, guitar, and drums, I immediately think of Paul Motian’s trio with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano. Has that group had a particular influence on this one?
TM: Of course. Ben and I are both a part of Paul’s universe. The trio is one of my favorite bands, and they did some of the most amazing performances that I’ve seen live. And then I also studied with Lovano. But what I really like about this group is that we sound nothing like Paul’s trio. Part of the reason is that we do it with three drummers—Tom Rainey, Nasheet, and Billy Mintz. Each player is completely different in the way that they affects us, which is really exciting for me
In general, I’ve really liked working in groups without bassists. Like I had a trio with Tom Rainey and Angelica Sanchez without bass. Something that’s new for me is playing in my lower register and almost assuming the role of a bass. It’s really affecting my overall sonic picture. It’s almost like I’m underneath Ben sometimes, and playing under his harmony, under his tone. It almost feels like I’m in an underwater cave, trying to flow in it and go slower than Ben. I feel that you can really shake things up if you start playing softer than people. The first time I made those kinds of decisions, it felt like there was this whole other universe here, and that I just raised the sense of intimacy within the ensemble. It seems that people really start listening to you!
This approach has helped me get into new sound universe. I can play like a trombone, play like a low brass instrument, play like violins and violas, getting my double reed kind of thing together, accompanying like a bassoonist playing on the offbeats, or with a counterline. I can assume Ben is a flute player, or an opera singer, and offer a kind of secondary, contrapuntal voice and doing it with a different timbre than straight-up saxophone.
TJG: How have you developed this timbral variety in your personal practice?
TM: I think the most important thing is to play with people who challenge you, and Ben is certainly one of those guys. When he kicks the volume up, it’s like playing with John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble. At the same time he has these other extremes where he’s barely plugged in and he’s playing with his fingers, so for me I’m constantly working on having the ability to have that dynamic range—constantly trying to play softer and louder. That’s something I work on all the time just with long tones.
The other thing is learning to create different types of shades. I want to have a tone that can be Ben’s shadow, or or flip it and turn that into extreme brightness. This is a really important type of expression, as is flexibility with intonation—they all fall in the same category for me. Along those lines, Ben is one of my favorite musicians to play unison with. When we were playing more written music, we would be able to merge our sounds together and dissolve into each other sounds. He’s so strong, but he’s flexible and can bend and meet me halfway.
TJG: It seems that you’re interested in creating a sense of continuum with every musical parameter—whether it’s pitch or dynamics or timbre or roles within an ensemble.
TM: Yeah. At the same time, though, I’m really turned on from playing lines again especially when Ben gets into these almost kind of metal textures. He can create these massive sonic walls, and then I can scribble against that with lines. With both him and Nasheet, I can get into this type of surfing with melodic lines.
TJG: When playing lines isn’t a default anymore, you can go to that place and it feels really satisfying and earned.
TM: Right. I’ve spent almost 15 years trying to be an anti soloist, learning how to act more like an arranging on the spot. Now, it’s refreshing to focus on soloing and the storytelling, going back to working on lines and scales and intervallic studies. That’s something I really laid off when I was developing my sonic vocabulary with pitch and timbre and it’s really great to engage with that again.
Monder, Malaby, Waits plays The Jazz Gallery on Wednesday, May 29, 2019. The group features Tony Malaby on saxophone, Ben Monder on guitar, and Nasheet Waits on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $20 general admission ($10 for members), $30 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.