Roiling Through an Undertow
Tony Malaby (tenor and soprano saxophone), Ben Gerstein (trombone), Joachim Badenhorst (bass clarinet), Dan Peck (tuba), Michaël Attias (alto saxophone), Andrew Hadro (baritone saxophone) and Ralph Alessi (trumpet) at Jazz Gallery.
The tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby has a burly but beseeching tone, and in his own bands he often pushes toward an amiable ruckus. Novela, the nine-piece band he presented at the Jazz Gallery on Sunday night, takes this predilection to its logical extreme. Drawing from “Novela” (Clean Feed), an album released in September, the group played a sprawling set of faintly episodic, heavily textured music, pausing only a couple of times to re-establish a center of gravity. The distinctive color of Mr. Malaby’s voice, on soprano as well as tenor, was often lost on a crowded canvas. He seemed totally fine with that.
To some extent “Novela” is a retrospective for him: its repertory consists of reworked compositions from albums going back almost 20 years. What gives this album its own identity is the lineup of timbres, with three saxophones, along with bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano and drums. All the arrangements are by the pianist and composer Kris Davis, a longtime associate of Mr. Malaby.
Periodically during the first set Ms. Davis left her piano bench to conduct the ensemble, usually during a slow-dawning, expectant ballad. Her voicings tended to suggest a troubled serenity, with chords full of close intervals for the horn-and-reeds brigade. “Floating Head,” the set opener, had a strong, brackish undertow, with tuba, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet puffing a vamp in triple meter; the rest of the ensemble played a sprightly polyrhythm, moving against the grain. The ideal seemed to be a classic Charles Mingus roil, knockabout but self-assured. It didn’t quite get there.
The uncertain feeling in the set’s first half probably had something to do with all the free improvisation that cropped up within the tunes. Which isn’t a knock on the playing. One potent scramble near the end of “Floating Head” involved just Dan Peck, on tuba, and Ben Gerstein, on trombone. A full-ensemble blast, near the end of “Floral and Herbaceous,” delivered some sharp disorientation, a cacophony of whinnies and squeals. And a duet between Ms. Davis and the alto-saxophonist Michaël Attias was full of reflective tension and sly allusions to the chord changes of “All the Things You Are.”
What really worked, on a full-band basis, was the twinkling delirium of “Warblepeck,” with the drummer John Hollenbeck hammering toylike mallet-percussion instruments, and the trumpeter Ralph Alessi soloing above the fray. Something even more compellingly feverish came at the set’s close: “Remolino,” an incantation in the spirit of Albert Ayler, with everyone in the band intoning the melodic line as one.
Soon after that collective fanfare had passed, the band moved on to a sinuous groove in 5/4 meter, and Mr. Malaby took an impassioned soprano-saxophone solo, building his argument around the shape of the melody. It was woolly but coherent: his most unambiguous showcase of the set, and the one that threw the whole picture into focus.