Interview: Tony Malaby Discusses His New Album, Somos Agua

Saxophonist Tony Malaby is one of the standouts of a generation of jazz musicians who got going in New York in the mid-1990s. A bold and fiery player, Malaby has made an impact on the New York scene over the past twenty years. Tony and I had the opportunity to discuss his new record, Somos Agua, released this month on Clean Feed Records. He warmly invited me to his home so that we could talk about his origins as an artist, the emergence of the band Tamarindo (with William Parker and Nasheet Waits), and some of the ideas that are present in the new album.

Interview conducted at Tony Malaby’s Home in Jersey City, NJ, June 19, 2014

Cisco Bradley: I’d like to get a better sense of your background. I know that you are originally from Arizona.

Tony Malaby: I’m from Arizona, Tucson, yeah.

CB: So I mean, I guess what brought you to New York? I know you’ve been here over what, over 20 years, I’m I right?

TM: Yeah. I got here in ‘95.

CB: Okay. I grew up in Tucson and I left there when I was about 18 years old and I went to Arizona State University in Tempe, and just because there was a little scene happening at Arizona State University. People just knew there was more rhythm sections and there was places to play and there was this teacher who was a really great pianist, named Chuck Mahronic. So I started school there and was exposed to, yeah just a love for playing tunes you know, and for coming out through that. And at the same time I was studying classical saxophone and I was playing in a saxophone quartet and I was, I was you know, studying. I had etudes every week and had repertoire that I was working on and extended techniques, playing solo pieces you know. It was a very unique situation I mean, for myself and I was playing with really great saxophone graduate students you know, in quartets and stuff because I could read from playing in big bands and coming up reading and stuff. So I would play baritone saxophone in these ensembles and we were really playing some pretty progressive music, and the same time I was learning how to play jazz. And the teacher was a real player and he really stressed the importance of playing together and it was a nice balance that I got from there, and you know, and I just started streamlining into the focus of being a jazz saxophonist. And I went to a camp in Canada in 1990.

CB: Banff?

TM: That was Banff yeah. All of a sudden I was just, I found a community, I found a sense of wow here’s a bunch of people who are trying to look at it like I was you know. And people from different types of backgrounds not just a strong bebop thing you know, and being exposed to European improvisers and jazz players who are still really great friends of mine.

CB: Are there particular people that you can remember?

TM: Yeah, like Jorrit Dijkstra. Jorrit Dijkstra was there, he’s a Dutch saxophonist. He’s been in Boston for a while now. He was there at the same time. Ralph Alessi was there when I was there. Seamus Blake, a tenor player. Ethan Iverson was there. Andy Milne was there, Benoit Delbecq from France. It was a very powerful experience. I still play and teach with them. And something told me that I had to get out of Arizona soon. So Rufus Reid was teaching bass there and he says, “why don’t you come out, finish your degree at William Paterson College?” So I said yeah, I’ll do that, so I came out here for two years and I went to William Paterson and was you know, a half-hour drive, 40 minute drive from Manhattan and it just, it clicked for me very fast. I mean the first thing that happened while I was studying at William Paterson is that I sat in at a club in Montclair, New Jersey called Trumpets and I sat in with Joey DeFrancesco and I ended up getting the gig. So it was my first time touring and I remember going to San Diego and playing in a club there for a week.

CB: Wow.

TM: You know, and then from there going you know, going to Europe, I mean I played the Montreux Jazz Festival that year. At the same time I was studying with Joe Lovano at William Paterson and it was a really great time you know, and after that I got the gig with, I ended up getting a gig with the Mingus Big Band. I did that. And that’s where I met Michael Formanek and Marty Ehrlich and Marty asked me to do a gig at a place called the New Music Café. And I remember meeting Mark Dresser, Mark Helias and you know, just coming in contact with this other world.

CB: Yeah.

TM: That’s kind of how it started, and I stayed in the New York Area for a couple of years and then I decided I really had to, I really had to work again, and I really felt the importance of having an individual sound, voice you know, just your own way of looking at things and really getting artistic with it for the very first time very serious about it. And I felt that if I stayed in New York I would struggle to survive. I felt that I had to comply and play the tenor in a certain way to make money or something like that.

CB: In New York?

TM: Yeah at that time.

CB: So it would have been what, mid, late 90’s?

TM: This was 1992.

CB: ‘92, oh ok.

TM: I don’t know I just felt like I was going to have to do something to survive at that point. And I decided to go back to Arizona and I got hired as an adjunct teacher and in no time I had set up 3 to 4 nights of steady places where I could play jazz. And I was there for a couple of years.

CB: That was in Tucson?

TM: This was in Tempe.

CB: Tempe, right.

TM: Yeah. And then I just hit a wall and I was like “I have to get out of here, I have to go back.” And in that time I really studied props this route you know. In that time I started playing with an old friend of mine who was in LA, his name is Joey Sellers and we started playing together and we brought up Formanek and we made a record with Formanek and Billy Mintz. That’s my first record, and I started playing with some of the LA community while I was there and I also started bringing them to Arizona, and we set up this circuit of touring. We would go up the coast and they had places to play we would give workshops you know, but it’s at that point that I felt like I really needed to be in New York.

CB: Yeah, so then you came?

TM: So then we came and yeah, Angelica was with me then and we came in ‘95, August of ‘95. And we lived on 6th Street, between 1st and A [avenues], and a friend of ours from LA was sub-letting and he said the, “the place is available if you guys want to take it.” And I remember asking him if I can call him back in a couple of days, he said, “Yeah, no worries.” And I remember telling Angelica about it and calling him back in 15 minutes and taking it. So it was that kind of thing. So we lived there and then we lived in Bushwick and then we ended up moving out here because Angelica had a friend who bought a house here and we were going to rent the top floor. I didn’t want to live in Jersey because I had gone to William Paterson and I just had this, “yeah no I don’t want to go back west, I don’t want to be on the mainland, I don’t,” like I was into this, but we came out and looked at the place and we fell in love with it, the neighborhood and we could make a racket there you know. We could play and we had a piano, we had drums, we had sessions there, it was right across the street from where we are now, that’s where Nate Wooley lives now.

CB: Oh, right, he mentioned that.

TM: So, we were there for a few years and then we ended up buying a house two doors up, so I was there. We moved to New York in ‘95 and we both worked at Tower Records.

CB: Cool.

TM: Yeah, we are still friends with a lot of those people.

CB: How did you get from there to Tamarindo?

TM: It’s just a—

CB: That’s a huge question, I know.

TM: It’s a huge question but I really came to New York because I wanted to be involved in creative music and play lots of composers’ music and be involved in a lot of projects. And really use my versatility, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a saxophone player, and yeah, it just started happening. I played so many sessions when I was working a day job, I mean I wouldn’t practice you know. But I had done so much work before I got here in Arizona—practicing and that kind of work. So I just played sessions and got together with people. It still works the same way I think, bands started forming that way. And people started recording, people started doing little tours and you know, those bands started playing in better rooms and it just evolved that way and I was just always in the perspective of just trying to bring something very genuine to each situation and really be myself. And I just kept developing from that point and always making artistic decisions with what types of gigs to take and what to do because I was still being challenged, because I was still going to get my butt kicked.

CB: Yeah.

TM: Harmonically, rhythmically, all that, the process began streamlining me into this thing of being more of an improviser and really playing with a clean slate and not knowing what the presentation is going to be or not knowing how things are going to end. And staying in that process and yeah, just trying to find people who steer that in different ways and I react and make me react and be able to take different choices and you know, really staying in this process of creation from that perspective. And Tamarindo is kind of that, does that makes sense? Is that clear?

CB: You are talking about the development of a vocabulary and relationships and all that stuff that goes into making this kind of music.

TM: Yeah.

CB: It’s interesting. Well I would love to talk more, maybe more about this at some point, we can see if we have time. But would you like to talk about the genesis of Tamarindo?

TM: Yeah. I think I was on the road with Gerald Cleaver and he was just talking about William Parker and how he could hear us playing together, I should with William, and I had made a record with Mike Pride that William was on. It was just an improvisation.

CB: Which record?

TM: Two sets. It’s a Mike Pride record, I can’t remember the title of it.

CB: Was it one of the ones in his Scrambler series?

TM: Oh, yeah, I think that’s right. With Charlie Looker. And it was just two sets at the Old Office [in the Knitting Factory] and he recorded and he put it out. When Gerald brought it up, I was just like “Wow, that’s a great idea, I should do that.” And I had been playing with Nasheet [Waits], with Fred Hersch and with Open Loose when Tom Rainey couldn’t do it. Nasheet did a lot of gigs. And there was a poetry there, there was a thing that I really, I know there was also just a basic connection that we could do both gigs, we could play in those two kinds of worlds and I just wanted to improvise with it, completely play open and stuff, and so that’s how that came about.

CB: With William?

TM: With William.

CB: Yeah.

TM: And we started playing you know, we started playing in Dee Pop’s series. I don’t remember where the first gigs were, I don’t think it was at CBGB’s, it was a place after CBGB’s, it was like a bar, downstairs bar in the East Village somewhere. And Dee Pop was a guy who was a drummer who played in some punk bands. He’s got to be about my age. Do you know who Dee Pop is?

CB: No.

TM: Yeah. One of the first places I started playing a lot was a place called the Internet Café.

CB: Oh sure, right.

TM: Yeah, and he used to book that place and then that went south and he started booking series basically at CBGB’s. And then that went south and he ended up at a little place not far from CBGB’s. It was a Belgian beer place, and downstairs there was a little room and that’s where we played for the first time in front of an audience. And then we did other things through the Vision Fest people you know. We played at their, you know, some of their spaces and their series whatever was going on up there. And then Pedro from Clean Feed [Records] said, “Do you want to record that?”, and I said yeah, and then I decided to write for that session just from experiences I had playing with them. You know, different types of zones that I experienced with them you know, with William playing in this register doing this with a bow, Nasheet kind of in this kind of flow. You know, and I was playing in the upper register kind of wailing you know like a crying baby and just cataloging these things as they would happen when we would be improvising in these gigs. And then use these as a template for how to start a tune and then write a composition with these.

CB: Sounds fascinating, so you guys obviously played together for a while and then you constructed compositional elements based on bits and pieces you selected.

TM: Yeah, I mean kind of constructing from the vibe you know.

CB: That’s fascinating.

TM: Yeah.

CB: So how much do you actually write out or is it sort of a frame of mind that you kind of compose?

TM: It’s all notated.

CB: I see.

TM: Just really trying to notate the zone in a way and give it what’s the rhythm thing, how can these guys from looking at this and playing it the first time, how fast can we get into that zone? So I would have to edit it down to just get the essence of the lines so that you don’t have to talk about it and you don’t have to describe it, and just work our way back to that thing. The process of that is sometimes even better than the original thing. Just finding a way with it and that’s what I love about this band is there is no rush with that type of development.

CB: Could you talk a little bit about William Parker and Nasheet Waits?

TM: When I play with Williams it’s like stomping around in a crazy mud marsh thing and it’s just so earthy, and Nasheet is really watery to me. There are all these types of currents, all these types of whirlpools, deep pools, surf, there are all these things and I feel like that sound is flowing around William. I’m this other type of debris that’s kind of connecting both things in a way, and I really get that type of sensation of how time is moving with us rhythmically and in tide. In a sense there is a perspective there that I’m playing from the very pure place in it, and at the same time we are covering each other. Anybody can do anything and we are going to help, it’s just about the music you know. It’s not about any type of rhythm section, role playing or any kind of, its just three voices, and there is abandonment with that and that.

CB: So you got shift in support or?

TM: Yeah, yeah.

CB: Or lead or what, shifting roles?

TM: Yeah.

CB: Interesting. That’s a beautiful visual representation.

TM: Oh good.

CB: Do you want to talk about any of the individual songs?

TM: From the new record?

CB: Yes. It’s your third record, right? There is Tamarindo and then Tamarindo Live?

TM: Yeah, that’s the third record.

CB: Somos Agua. We are water.

TM: We are water, yeah.

CB: Would you like to talk about some of the individual tunes or the album as a whole?

TM: The first tune is just referencing these moments in cataloging where William is playing something like this and Nasheet is playing something like this and I’m doing something like this, you know. And this came out bluesy, it’s very southern, and just as the lines started developing compositionally I started hearing these other things when Nasheet played a back beat against it. But at the same time all of these are modular like I explained before in the process of how I present things and how we arrive at something differently every time we play it. So that first piece is called “Mule Skin” because of the flavor of it. And the second piece is what? [looking at the CD]

CB: “Loretto?”

TM: “Loretto” yeah, that’s my mother’s name. I was just trying to evoke sentiment and just this thing as a starting point for improvisations within that frame, that feeling, that, those emotions. And yeah just a simple piece to get us into that, simple lines with William and me and it takes us into an area, an opening. And “matik-matik” is a club in Bogota. It’s run by a really cool guy named Benjamin who’s actually French. And he’s running this wonderful space where the focus is improv, noise, free jazz, folkloric music and I spent 10 days there in 2013, in the spring. I think. And when I was there I was getting ready to do this record with Tamarindo so it’s where I did a lot of the writing. I had been working on this little salsa kind of piece and just hanging out with the musicians that were there, and just talking about rhythm and layering rhythm, and just my experience in playing with the guys that I was playing with in Colombia, I just started hearing these types of lines. And William kind of how you would play this and how, what this would turn into, and so that’s “matik-matik.” What’s after that?

CB: “Can’t Find You.”

TM: Yeah, “Can’t Find You” was a piece where the melodic ideas came from a solo gig that I actually did there in Bogota, and I remember the idea after I played the solo set, how I started a solo set. I remember these intervals and the stuff and said I’m going to turn this into a piece. So that was that and then the back half of that is a piece that I developed with Michael Attias. We were working on soprano saxophone and baritone saxophone, and I wrote this duet for us and I ended up adapting that with William, and that’s the back half of “Can’t Find You.” And then there’s–

CB: “Bitter Dream?”

TM: “Bitter Dream” was just hearing William play a voice against myself and just having a kind of color and feeling of these types of intervals that I’ve been working on. And then the last piece was an improv that we did in the studio and I think it’s a really nice closer, there are elements there of the whole, we did this at the end of a session and I think there is material from everything that winds up in that one.

CB: Tamarindo. What does that mean?

TM: It’s a fruit. Growing up as a kid you’d take the pulp and then you’d mix it with chili. It’s really common in Indian food. The fruit is tamarind, have you had tamarind chutney at an Indian restaurant?

CB: Oh sure.

TM: Yeah, in Mexico it’s used to make a drink.

CB: Interesting.

TM: It’s also used you know, you eat the pulp and reintroduce chili to it, and there is like this chili pulp. I think the band sounds like that, there is this bitter, sour, sweet, spicy thing to the whole sound. And I just, I loved that as a kid, you’d buy it in these little packets you know, and you’d tear the top off and it comes with little plastic spoons and eat this pulp, and it has a really particular taste.

CB: Interesting, I would like to try it.

TM: Yeah.

CB: Can you tell me how the band evolved from the first record to the second record to the present time?

TM: Yeah, the thing that I really like about the band is that it’s one of those situations where if you go out on the road every gig gets better. Every gig, just things evolve in a really great way, there are no stumbling blocks in a sense, it doesn’t go through that, it has an interest. We’ve gone through gigs where we play compositions and we’ve also gone through tours where it’s all improvised or where it’s all written music and I think out of that we have evolved in such a different way that it’s all about this process of really creating and surrendering to that. And whether I present music or whether it’s improvising, there is a beautiful sense of us having nothing to prove, this is how we make music, this is how we play together. And I don’t know how else to describe the satisfaction that one gets when you have that with two people you know, and I just feel really lucky that they are still involved and that they are available. The way we play really intensely and the versatility of playing with that type of emotion, and being able to slow that down. And presenting these pieces on a new record, I mean for me it’s still there that intensity, but there is also a poetry to how we present ideas together. I really like where we’ve gotten to.

CB: Do you have plans to go on another tour?

TM: Year, hopefully we’ll tour in 2015.

CB: In Europe or?

TM: Yeah, in Europe and hopefully the States too. But yeah, I’m already thinking of doing a fourth record with Wadada [Leo Smith] again because that was such a great experience and bringing Wadada back from the experience of playing with him and making the live record. I really want to do it in the studio and we are so strong with his sound and what I kind of pieces I want to generate for that. And just it really works with William and Nasheet and yeah just, I hope it will keep it going.

CB: I look forward to a fourth record! I’m glad to hear there is another one coming. I’ll keep that in mind as I continue to digest the new one.

–Cisco Bradley, July 3, 2014

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