Angelica Sanchez Quintet – Wires and Moss (CF 259)
Nick Fraser – Towns and Villages (Barnyard Records)
Arriving in New York from his native Tucson in 1995, Tony Malaby has since made his distinctive tenor and soprano saxophone tones part of that city’s scene, both with his own bands and as a sideman – most notably with bassist Mark Helias’ trio. His high- quality improvisations are featured on both these CDs, although he does have much closer ties to one leader than the other.
That’s because pianist Angelica Sanchez, who also composed Wires and Moss’s half-dozen tracks, is Malaby’s spouse, as well as being a respected jazzer in her own right. Another session reflecting her unique vision, the disc unites the two with a top rhythm section of bassist Drew Gress and drummer Tom Rainey plus French guitarist Marc Ducret. A responsive time-keeper who composed all the titles on his CD, Toronto-based drummer Nick Fraser calls on Malaby’s skills more platonically on Canadian Towns and Villages. The distinctiveness of this CD comes from the juxtaposition of his and the saxman’s instruments with those played by two other Toronto-based musicians. The distinctive timbres of Andrew Downing’s cello and Rob Clutton’s bass are both cleverly worked into the arrangements.
A member of the collective quintet Drumheller and the band Ugly Beauties with pianist Marilyn Lerner and cellist Matt Brubeck, the Ottawa-born drummer is so self-effacing that often it’s only clip-clops, bumps or patterns which characterize his accompaniment. Meanwhile a track such as “Albs” is built around a mellow interface that contrasts Malaby’s sweet-and-sour tenor vibrato with Downing’s rich bowed lines and timed thumps from Clutton. Even when the two string players advance contrapuntal whistles and creaks, as on the fully improvised “Sketch #10”, an innate lyricism is still present, with Fraser’s understated ratamacues softening Malaby’s thick sax slurs
In contrast the track that moves this quartet closest to Albert Ayler territory – he used similar instrumentation, but with trumpet as well – is the enigmatically titled “?”. Here Malaby’s pinched blowing and peeping is matched by the bassist’s string sawing and the cellist’s staccato creaks and crackles. While the drummer’s output is more dominant, it seems that his basic taste prevents the tune from blasting into the stratosphere.
Overall however the CD’s most distinctive number is “Sketch #12”, which sums up the fine musical line the quartet walks. The performance is neither completely straight-edged nor fully free form despite Malaby’s narrowed tremolo vibrato, disassociated slurs and reed bites. No matter, the backing stays resolutely linear. A thick walking bass line plus pops and clatters from the drummer sees to this. While there’s curiosity engendered with this clashing of sonic strategies, more excitement could have resulted if the four resolved the situation one way or the other.
Fewer tunes and more front line players distinguish the other session. Although the combo has been together for a half-dozen years, unlike the Fraser-Malaby one-off, a basic tension still exists. Malaby’s chesty moans and concentrated slurs plus Ducret’s ringing tone distortions pull the band in one direction, while Sanchez’s sympathetically and contrapuntally decorated expositions aim for an opposing game plan. With Dress and Rainey forcefully backing up the three, a disconnect between subtle and sinewy is often highlighted. Overall it’s mostly the guitarist who is the spark plug and whose playing is most disruptive to the measured narratives.
Since after all Sanchez composed all the tunes and is session leader, this effect is probably simpatico with her aims, even if it appears to conflict with her sympathetic chording and restrained keyboard dusting. Yet when Ducret’s buzzing, sliding licks on “Dare” give the impression that he`s daring the saxophonist to dispense with his previously lighter-than-air soprano lines and turn to pressurized lip vibrations is this part of Sanchez’s plans? Certainly while she has occasion to showcase a staccato interface with runs from both hands emerging for additional coloration, her main concern is melody building, with the atonal improvising left to others.
Only on the extended “Soaring Piasa” for example, when broken-octave counterpoint is advanced by Malaby’s human-sounding altissimo squeals and muscular Rainey drum ruffs, does the pianist seem intent on taking control of the rhythm section, harmonizing and integrating every other instrumental texture. Again does this pinpoint Sanchez’s collaborative skill or her instrumental shyness?
As it is the unanswered question suggests something is lacking on both sessions. Although each can be listening to with interest, the conciseness of Fraser’s performances plus the resolute linearity of Sanchez’s concepts work against a full loosening of structures and the creation of fully exhilarating dates. Perhaps next time…