(Edited 2/24, with major correction- Tyshawn Sorey is NOT the drummer for Sticks and Stones, Chad Taylor is. My apologies to all involved.)
First, this was my first venture to Stone, the volunteer run new-music space buried deep into the East Village. The space itself is Spartan- there is no obvious sign in front of the venue, black is the dominant color, and there is no bar or food (no food allowed, either). There are fifty or so plastic chairs, and a small PA and drum kit. (No bass amp- William Parker miked himself into the PA.) It seemed to embody at once the DIY character and the esthetic sensibility of the scene it was created to represent.
Tony Malaby is one of those musicians who leaves you asking “why isn’t he bigger?” He is a brilliant, versatile player in a variety of settings, and is amply recorded as both leader and sideman. He has made several notable albums, and is fantastic as a foil for Fred Hersch in his “five man trio”. Despite this, and the awe he inspires among saxophonist and afficianados- by 8:15 the room was packed to the gills- he has not received the wider attention that some of his equals (Potter, McCaslin, etc) have.
This gig, a free improvising trio, was an amazing showpiece for Tony. He explored seemingly every possible way of getting sound out of the saxophone- playing, honking, screeching, puffing. He employed every “extended technique” you could think of- multiphonics, singing and playing at once, percussive effects, even (I think) putting his teeth on the reed, which results in ungodly shrieks. He would open most of the improvisations with a clear thematic statement, and precede to repeat it, develop it, explore it, and/or shred it.
However, while Malaby himself was beyond amazing, I found the full trio music unsatisfying. There were certainly moments, especially when the band broke into a duo formation, but too often the rhythm section fell into what have become the standard patterns of free playing behind a saxophone- lots of crashing and almost but not quite swing/walking. Part of this could be explained by Randy Peterson walking in at the last minute for ill drummer Nasheed Waits. The result though, was music that was far too monochromatic, formally and texturally. I’m at a point as a listener and player where no matter how good the players, it’s not a whole lot better than hearing a neo-bop piano trio make yet another run through “Stella”.
Matana and Tyshawn took a completely different approach, organizing their set around several song forms- “Sometimes I Feel…”, “Come Sunday”, and “Round Midnight” I recognized, and I think there was one I didn’t. (Tonight Sorey played piano; he is better known as a drummer) In introducing the last tune Matana alluded to a project she’s working on about her family’s identity and dynamics, racial and otherwise, and this seemed to inform the musical decisions of the evening. (She also showed off a Flat Stanley sent to her by a cousin in Illinois, who had excitedly told friends that it was going to “someone famous” in New York.)
The rapport between Matana and Tyshawn them is obvious. They are both patient players who alternate easily between “inside” and “outside” harmonies and techniques. Unlike a lot of “avant” saxophonists, Matana’s playing is very clean, and technically crisp, closer in delivery to Kenny Garrett or Steve Coleman than Ornette or Archie Shepp. Tyshawn combined the deft touch and rhythmic instincts of a good drummer with a composer’s wide harmonic and textural sensibility. He never soloed per se- either Matana was the featured voice or they played as equals for the whole set.
This was very dramatic music- while the melodies and harmonies of each tune were obvious, the delivery was rarely straightforward- there were pauses, discursions, reharmonizations, and asides aplenty. The results were far more arresting than the first set- and more satisfying.