Jazz historian Albert Murray used to say that jazz “is the canvas where only those illuminated with complex ideas can make music as once mysterious and transparent.” Mexican-American Tony Malaby is indeed one those illuminated with the talent to push the envelope. And he what brings to that canvas of jazz comes from multiple routes–just like his multicultural background. Malaby has been enriching the tradition of improvised music by adding his unique voice. He is, hands down, one of a kind.

For anyone familiar with jazz innovators, Malaby, who calls New York his home, managed earlier in his career to be on par with the giants of jazz, especially those influential saxophonists of their time. In the 1990s, when he was establishing himself in the Big Apple by way of New Jersey’s William Paterson College, Malaby was already leaving his mark. Quite a leap for someone raised in Tucson, Arizona!

That trailblazing spirit hit early as he ran into the likes of organist Joey DeFrancesco, reed innovator/composer Marty Ehrlich, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tom Rainey, the latter two subsequently becaming partners in different band settings. Malaby was also able to enjoy playing with a variety of Charles Mingus big band alumni. It was with Formanek and Rainey especially that Malaby started to flex his creative muscles in the fertile 1990s. That decade also saw Malaby become a recording artist in his own right, co-starring with trombonist Joey Sellers for the album “Cosas” in 1993, and in 2000 with a more outside date entitled “Sabino.” Since then, Malaby has had a string of recordings that reflect Murray’s idea of jazz as a place for the illuminated.

As many as 13 recordings, including the intriguing “Apparitions” (2003) but also his Clean Feed recordings “Tamarindo” (2007), “Tamarindo Live” and “Novela” (both from 2010), keep track of the tenor saxophonist stretching the boundaries of melodic and harmonic conceptions. Truly

engaging recordings, these albums require the utmost attention from listeners, listeners seeking intelligent details, unexpected surprises, and always compelling shades and nuances.

Malaby’s most recent Tamarindo record, “Somos Aqua” (Clean Feed)–which once again features his mates Nasheet Waits on drums and William Parker on bass–is yet another example of this band’s commitment to having as few restrictions as possible. The music on this third recording is

yet another statement of letting the music travel to unexpected quarters. If you listen closely to any of the seven originals on “Somos Aqua,” which also include Malaby’s exceptional work on soprano sax, you’ll most likely hear music that “flows like a river, surpassing all the obstacles put against the currents.” Those “currents” speak to the idiosyncratic charm of this trio’s chemistry.

While Tamarindo remains a major project, Malaby’s activities also include the band TubaCello (with John Hollenbeck, Chris Hoffman and Dan Peck) and “Paloma Recio” (with Ben Monder, Eivind Opsvik, Dan Weiss, Ben Gerstein and Billy Mintz). Side dates have included work with the late Paul Motian’s Electric Be-Bop Band and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, along with bands led by Fred Hersch, Chris Lightcap and Ches Smith.

As featured in DownBeat’s recent “80 Coolest Things In Jazz” celebration of that magazine’s 80th anniversary this summer, writer Bill Meyer perhaps put it best when he cited Tony Malaby as “a formidably accomplished soprano and tenor saxophonist with enviable tone and an endless font of compelling ideas.”


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