Tony Malaby – Novela (CF 232)
Canadian-born pianist Kris Davis’ student days intriguingly foreshadow her future endeavors: classical studies at the Royal Conservatory of Music; two summers at the Banff Centre for the Arts’ jazz program, where she met future collaborator Tony Malaby; then, moving to New York City to study composition with Jim McNeely. Her subsequent associations with peers like John Hollenbeck and Ingrid Laubrock, as well as her membership in collectives such as Paradoxical Frog and the RIDD Quartet, have developed in tandem with her own varied projects.
Aeriol Piano is her first unaccompanied outing. The solo recital has long been considered the ultimate proving ground for pianists; encouraging the broadest dynamic range from a performer, it captures every nuance of an artist’s expressive capabilities. From a respectfully abstract linear reading of Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are” and a handful of fully improvised miniatures to the ambitious “Saturn Return,” Davis explores the full potential of her instrument, both inside and out.
A product of her influences, Davis seamlessly incorporates lessons learned from disparate sources, adapting the dissonant intervals of Cecil Taylor, probing lyricism of Paul Bley and understated minimalism of Morton Feldman into a singular style largely devoid of the clichés of the jazz tradition, such as block chords or left-handed bass lines. Though capable of summoning turbulent salvos for dramatic effect, it is her ability to craft poetic melodies from oblique lyrical fragments – infusing heady abstraction with heartfelt beauty – that is her most impressive talent. The prepared piano opus “Saturn Return” takes this aesthetic a step further, serving as the conceptual centerpiece of the record. An episodic rumination through various stylistic precedents, Davis builds from romantic musings to thunderous drama before embarking on a lyrical exposition that draws equally from aleatoric experimentation and minimalist formalism.
Davis’ growing talent as a composer and improviser is well documented, but her skills as an arranger and conductor have been largely unheard, until now. Tony Malaby’s Novela features Davis’ multifaceted arrangements of six Malaby-penned compositions originally conceived for trio and/or quartet. Davis’ working relationship with Malaby dates back 10 years, to the formation of her longstanding quartet. In the ensuing years Malaby has explored a variety of instrumental line-ups to extend the breadth of his eclectic writing, from bare-bones acoustic trios to electrified quartets. Novela is his most extravagant creation yet, a horn-heavy nonet that combines the unfettered zeal of a riotous street band and the tonal sensitivity of a chamber ensemble.
The session consists entirely of previously recorded compositions; two even date back to Sabino (Arabesque), his 2000 debut as a leader. Although presumably selected for the sake of expediency, these six tunes provide Davis the opportunity to demonstrate her knack for transposing skeletal themes into intricate symphonic tone poems, revealing a previously undocumented talent in the process. Davis’ urbane charts subtly hint at her studies with McNeely, tracing a line back through the innovations of George Schuller and George Russell. They also conjure memories of the loft era, with zany march motifs and manic collective improvisations that owe as much to Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton as they do Raymond Scott.
Opening with brooding intensity, “Floating Head” features contrapuntal horn formations churning like storm clouds gathering in pursuit of the leader’s evasive soprano. “Floral and Herbacious” follows, blossoming into a cornucopia of dynamic ensemble shifts led by Ralph Alessi’s melancholy trumpet and Joachim Badenhorst’s caterwauling bass clarinet. After a dramatic exchange between Dan Peck’s bleating multiphonic tuba (played with a tenor saxophone mouthpiece) and his section mates, the ensemble swells behind Malaby’s rhapsodic tenor, concluding an excursion as quixotic as the surreal sonic travelogue “Mother’s Love.” The influence of Raymond Scott is heard in the quirky “Warblepeck,” which rivals “Remolino” for pure capriciousness. The former tune demonstrates the nonet’s capacity for rhythmic fervor as well as orchestral color, counterbalancing pneumatic horn charts with John Hollenbeck’s kaleidoscopic percussion accents. Davis’ spacious arrangements repeatedly reveal a penchant for such dramatic pairings; she isolates Michael Attias’ diaphanous alto at the outset of “Cosas,” stages a garrulous duet between Peck’s tuba and Ben Gerstein’s trombone during the coda of “Floating Head” and joins Peck and baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro for a riotous trio interlude on the madcap closer, “Remolino.”
While Davis is more than just an arranger here – she also conducts the horns and plays piano – ultimately, the star of the show is Malaby, whose unbound expressionism continues to push further and further beyond conventional tonal extremes with each release. Inspired to lofty heights by Davis’ opulent charts, Tony Malaby’s Novela is one of the saxophonist’s most compelling efforts to date.