In college, I played drums in an eight-piece funk band. For two years, twice a week from ten p.m. to midnight we would all meet in the band room to work out tunes like “Express Yourself,” “Cissy Strut,” and “The Chicken.” A handful of times we landed paying gigs—an event on the quad, a gala at the art museum, a weekday night at a bar downtown. The gigs were poorly attended, maybe, but we were getting paid! The late-night hours in the stuffy soundproof room were being rewarded, translated into material, spendable evidence of our talent and determination. Then we split the check eight ways. By the time I graduated I had earned enough as a drummer to buy a tank of gas. Maybe a tank and a half.
But surely there are other reasons musicians go solo, especially avant-garde jazz saxophonists. Any of the fifteen or so of us in attendance at the Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor last week could tell you that Tony Malaby probably didn’t decide to leave his fantastic groups (Tamarindo, Apparitions) at home in favor of a Midwestern solo mini-tour for any monetary reasons.
In fact, I almost didn’t go to the show. I had listened to the landmark solo sax records by guys like Anthony Braxton and Evan Parker and knew the experience to be taxing, at times painful, and even—if one isn’t careful—boring. Avant-garde/improvised/“free” jazz, sometimes completely devoid of the things, like meter and melody, that our ears have been conditioned to rely on in order to make sense of musical language, is a decidedly challenging genre in its abstractness and complexity. While sometimes especially large groups of improvisers present the most difficulty, because all that complicated, un-hierarchized information can be impossible to process all at once, often what makes this kind of music most easily accessible is hearing how the musicians interact with and respond to each other in musical dialogue or conversation. So what happens when you take away all musicians but one? (And we’re not talking about a self-supporting guitar or piano.) Especially given the urgency of live performance, I wondered whether “seeing” (that is, hearing) Tony Malaby solo would lend itself to the type of focus that makes the brain available to new realms of insight and appreciation. Or would I simply be listening to a monologue in a language I didn’t understand?
In the wake of an appropriately effusive introduction, without much pageantry Malaby took his place on a rigid black chair next to his soprano and tenor saxophones. He clipped the soprano to his neck strap and started playing. As I try to describe now what I heard then, it’s clear to me that Malaby was speaking another language—in that I don’t have the vocabulary to represent with any technical accuracy what he was doing on stage. What I can say: The music escalated gradually as he oscillated between tentative breathy passages, quiet enough to hear the saxophone keys click or the chair reply to his shifting weight, and clean, full-bodied tones, the soprano pointed straight at us. Astonishingly loud and shrilly piercing notes could left-turn to guttural, machine-gun chugging. Malaby seemed to be tapping his feet throughout much of the first sequence, but whatever point of reference he might have been working from was lost on me. It was difficult to predict the direction his playing would take from phrase to phrase, making the listening by turns gripping and tedious. When he was done with the first piece—this seems more fitting than to say when the piece was over—he described it as a kind of mash-up of two different sources: an Amazon bird call and a tune by Paul Motian (he couldn’t recall the name).
He played for about an hour more after that, switching to the tenor, then back to the soprano, then back to the tenor once more. Except to thank us at the end, he never spoke again, offering us none of the kind of direction or commentary poets often do at readings, thus leaving the music, the sound, to speak for itself. And like any worthwhile work of art, his playing over the course of the evening did begin to establish its own unique terms, a new vocabulary that we might be able to pick up or at least get a sense of on the spot, if we listened closely and with an interest in learning. Listening this way, our points of reference may shift, as might our sense of scale. The unpredictable, even in its unpredictability, becomes more familiar. Patterns—not those of pop rhythm, meter, or melody, but those of Malaby’s own personal jazz-inflected expression—begin to emerge, along with variations and permutations. Things begin to make sense again, at least a little. Anyway, we are already making a deal with abstraction when we listen to instrumental music of any kind—mainstream jazz, classical, funk. What’s one more clause in the contract?