Saxophonist Tony Malaby has been a vital player in the New York creative music scene since the 1990s, playing with everyone and leading bands that use the full range of available options, from detailed composition to free improvisation, molding influences from across many genres into something personal. One of his earliest recordings was Sabino from 2000 was a searching, open session featuring bassist Michael Formanek, drummer Tom Rainey, and Marc Ducret on guitar. That band was able to conjure some Latin music feeling in conjunction with both wild free playing and a healthy dose of impressionistic, gentle exploration.
The Cave of Winds reconvenes that band, but with guitarist Ben Monder in Ducret’s place—though apparently, Monder had initially played with the band 20 years ago. The new session has a sharper edge than the original, partly because Monder is a bit more fond of cranking up the distortion on the date, but probably also because this session finds the band emerging from our collective 20-plus months of pandemic isolation.
During the dark period, Malaby, who contracted Covid in the spring of 2020, did the only logical thing that a person recovering from disease in New Jersey can do: he got some musician friends and started jamming underneath an overpass of the Garden State’s infamous turnpike, near the Holland Tunnel. Down there, apparently, things got sonically wild, with the wind whipping through and turning the music around in circles, special guests rounding corners as Subarus and birds and rattling concrete played call-and-response with the improvisation.
The Cave of Winds conjures up that highway-ensconced location, even if it was recorded in the studio afterward and upon Malaby’s decision to leave the New York area and move up to Boston. (There are, however, five sets of recordings from the Turnpike sessions on Bandcamp featuring Billy Mintz, John Hebert, Ches Smith, Tim Berne, William Parker, Christopher Hoffman, and others. However, none of these feature Monder or any piano or guitar as harmonic accompaniment.)
The new set sounds a good bit like solace and release. It’s not hard to hear some of the pain of the last two years in this music, of course. Just check out the start of “Scratch the Horse”, with Monder started it all using his most DeathMetal tone, thundering in his instrument’s lower range, growling really, and then inviting in Rainey and Formanek, who comply by producing nothing like a steady beat. Malaby enters with Ayler-ific honks and cries, skirls and growls.
But most of Cave is the sound of healing and release from this kind of chaos. The title track produces the sound of cautious tiptoeing toward understanding, with each voice light, and in conversation. Monder, who is capable of dominating the sonic environment, is lightly chorused and cool in tone. His notes are bent a bit by effects, wobbling a bit off-pitch like an uncertain, quavering voice. “Corinthian Leather”, the opening track, sounds like a bunch of kids coming out to play again after a week indoors during rainy weather. They laugh, want to play and interact, and the rumble of excitement is easy to get along with. And the bit of play that is “Just Me, Just Me” (a new melody atop the chord structure of “Just You, Just Me”, of course) is right on target. Malaby’s soprano sax plays a rough unison with the guitar while the rhythm section bickers beneath them, moving things forward. We all were a bit solipsistic during our lock-in time. But these musicians are tuned in to each other.
A track like “Insect Ward” will be a bit too on-the-nose for some ears—it sounds like a buzzing hive, yes, with all manner of noise occupying the band before it gets to some resolution. But it’s hard not to enjoy “Life Coach (for Helias)”, with Rainey’s hands flying over his drums in duet with Malaby’s tenor. Better yet is “Recrudescence”, which very very very slowly invites music to creep in from silence. It is a nearly 12-minute exercise in free improvisation, but it understands that each melody line carries power because of the space the musicians create between their voices. At the seven-minute mark, Monder plays a series of descending glissandi that use distortion. Then he begins building a more active set of up and down lines that accompany Malaby’s writhing horn. Guitar freaks have been fixated on Monder for a long time, and he makes something like this work. He is sonic glue.
Tom Rainey and Michael Formanek don’t get all that many places to show off how sensitive and thoughtful they are as soloists, even if they are fishing wire that keeps Malaby and Monder suspended from the ceiling so often. Formanek’s acoustic bass gets a peaceful moment that concludes “Recrudenscence”, and he reminds us why he often brings to mind the masterful Charlie Haden. Every note he plays seems like a good composition in the making. Rainey swings the band even when it is not trying to sound like old-school “jazz”. His playing beneath the metal guitar and howling saxophone at throughout “Scratch the Horse” is not that different from Buddy Rich taming a howling 20-piece big band—he lashes the big sound back to a sense of pulse with his cymbals, mainly. Rainey has as big a sound as any drummer in the New Jazz when he has to. And boy does he here.
The Cave of Winds is a contemporary version of the kind of straight-ahead saxophone-plus-rhythm recordings we heard from folks like Hank Mobley in the 1950s and early 1960s. Malaby works as a modern player, using both tricky compositional elements and big swaths of freedom, but the session doesn’t seem over-thought. This is what these players do, and after a period of forced confinement, here they are just playing again, without too many tricks or heavy concepts getting in the way. The band isn’t often delightful, which seems a shame given how capable they are of walking the line between freedom and punch. A Hank Mobley album, since I’ve made the comparison, would usually include a ballad or pretty tune. But after the time we’ve all just been through, perhaps the dour cast of most of this music is understandable.
If that makes the date seem like it isn’t a classic, maybe it also speaks well for an un-fussy, fresh, often surprising meeting of sympathetic players who know each other backward and forward.