Tony Malaby, 'Adobe' (2004)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Tony Malaby has been an essential tenor saxophonist of this century: a dauntless explorer with no qualms about direct emotional address. His versatility, along with that rarer expressive quality, made him a go-to sideman in the 2000s — with Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band and Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, among others — as well as a reliable catharsis engine on the low-rent New York City club circuit.

Malaby has expanded his rep and his purview since, leading excellent bands like Paloma Recio, whose album Incantations I reviewed in the NY Times a couple of years ago. You may have heard him with pianist Kris Davis, or in Fred Hersch's Leaves of Grass, or with the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. Or maybe you haven't heard him yet at all — in which case, have I got an album for you.

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Adobe came out in 2004, and while Malaby had been releasing albums for a few years at that point, it was rightly understood as pivotal. I had forgotten about this, but I filed a capsule review for the Philadelphia City Paper at the time, which still captures my feeling:

Primarily known as a first-rate free improviser, Malaby has an introspective side that often gets underplayed. But this release firmly establishes the 40-year-old tenor and soprano saxophonist as a subtle melodist and mood-setter. His horn can be elegiac, as on "Dorotea la Cautiva," or quizzical, as on the winding "Cosas." What never falters is the freshness of his solo excursions. For this, he shares equal credit with his distinguished company. Drummer Paul Motian is jazz's sage of small gestures, capable of painting a canvas with one tap of a cymbal. And bassist Drew Gress reinforces his adept solo and support skills. Together this trio has made an attractively modest statement that should win Malaby converts from beyond his experimental base. 

Motian's role is worth expanding on for a moment. He was in his early 70s when he played on this recording, and already a sought-after elder on the scene. Obviously he had already established a genuine rapport with Malaby. But this album is representative of a larger shift, which I discuss in Playing Changes: as musicians like Motian began to age into a phase of eminence, their influence subtly transformed the character of the music at ground level. Listen to the way that his beat, with its patented sort of halting propulsion, informs "Cosas," which is a contrafact of the ageless standard "All the Things You Are." This track could have felt like a throwback gesture. Not with Motian in the mix.

Buy Adobe at Sunnyside Records, or stream it on Spotify or Apple Music.

Fred Hersch Trio, 'Live at the Village Vanguard' (2003)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


Fred Hersch already had a lot of mileage in his rearview when he recorded Live at the Village Vanguard, in the spring of 2002. An acutely intelligent pianist who hit the ground running in the '70s, he put in serious apprenticeship hours with Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Art Farmer and others. But a turn-of-the-century run of gleaming songbook albums (on Nonesuch) had begun to make him feel pigeonholed. He came to the Vanguard ready to throw down.

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The gig introduced a terrific new trio, with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits. Two weeks later, I interviewed Hersch at his loft in SoHo for a profile in JazzTimes. "I felt like: ‘I just want to make a jazz record,'” he told me. “Kind of a no-muss, no-fuss, just capture what we do. A record that’s about the playing — but also hopefully, if it all comes out right, when you put it on you really feel like you’re there. You should feel like you’re sitting two tables back, just digging the band. I love that.”

Hersch had another album in the works when we spoke: Leaves of Grass, a brilliantly realized suite inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, with vocals by Kurt Elling and Kate McGarry. Last fall I found myself back in the SoHo loft interviewing Hersch about this very suite, for an episode of Jazz Night in America. We also talked about ood Things Happen Slowly: A Life in and Out of Jazz, the memoir that Hersch had just published, to deserving acclaim.

But back to Live at the Village Vanguard. I could just as easily selected a more recent album by Hersch — say, Sunday Night at the Vanguard, which chronicles his current trio, featuring John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums. (The same trio released another fabulous effort, Live in Europe, this year.) For that matter, I could have chosen Leaves of Grass

One reason I didn't: I see the 2003 Vanguard album as pivotal, and will confess to a certain sentimental attachment. There are no fewer than six Hersch originals on the album, and this was noteworthy at the time: he was really just beginning to come into his own in that respect. Listen to "Endless Stars," a flowing ballad in straight-eighth time, and you hear the full measure of Hersch's gift for melodic construction, and for a thematic development that feels effortless. 

Besides which, this is a song, in the fullest sense. In fact, it was only a year later that Norma Winstone released a version with her lyrics, calling it simply "Stars." (Hersch is her partner throughout the album, called Songs & Lullabies.) I'm including that here, too.

 

Purchase Live at the Village Vanguard at Amazon or Discogs.

The Claudia Quintet, 'The Claudia Quintet' (2001)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)


John Hollenbeck has been an important artist in and around improvised music in this century, not only as a drummer-bandleader but also as a composer and an arranger. The restriction I set for myself with the 129 Essential Albums list was difficult here, because I knew I could only include one album credited to Hollenbeck, and there are several others that could easily have made the cut. I'm still not sure, writing now, that The Claudia Quintet was the right choice; there have been more polished albums since, not only from the five-piece in question but also from the spectacular John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. (The most recent by that next-wave big band, All Can Work, was released early this year, and warrants some of your time.) 

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What led me to select this album over any others, ultimately, was the notion of impact. Back in 2001, when The Claudia Quintet emerged from a DIY coffeehouse improv scene on the Lower East Side, its gracefully amalgamated sound was uncommon, idiosyncratic and totally inspired. As I sat down to write this post, I tried to remember what I thought about the album when it first arrived, and somehow the internet obliged. Below, find a Critic's Pick blurb from the late, lamented Philadelphia City Paper in 2002. I haven't changed a word.

It's impossible to classify The Claudia Quintet (postmodern-ethnic-ambient-chamber-jazz, anyone?) but surprisingly easy to understand its language. A brainchild of percussionist John Hollenbeck (best known for supporting roles with Meredith Monk, Bob Brookmeyer and Cuong Vu), the ensemble reflects his allegiances to both the roughshod polyrhythms of field recordings and the lunar shimmer of ECM. On a brand-new, eponymous Blueshift CRI debut, these ostensibly dueling impulses get absorbed into a larger, more intriguing pattern of ebb and flow. Texture is naturally a key component, given the band's frontline of vibraphone, clarinet and accordion — but the central figure in Hollenbeck's drama is pulse, often obliquely independent of rhythm or time. It's a delicate equation, but it works beautifully, thanks to clarinetist Chris Speed, accordionist Ted Reichman, bassist Drew Gress and vibraphonist Matt Moran. Like Hollenbeck, these musicians have the rare ability to wax ethereal without dulling their edges.

 

Purchase The Claudia Quintet at this page, or stream it on Spotify.