If anything good has come from the past year, it has been an enhanced appreciation of friendship and communal interaction. In jazz and improvised music, the former is always a blessing, but the latter is a necessity. Guitarist Ben Monder set out with the intent of recording a studio album with longtime collaborators, saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey, but circumstances led to a more informal situation, providing a visceral glimpse of these stellar musicians’ rapport.
The performance world was on the brink of shutting down in early March 2020 due to the appearance of COVID-19. Monder decided to take the opportunity provided by his monthly Tuesday residency at New York City’s stalwart jazz club, The 55 Bar, to present a recurring project with Malaby, a bass-less trio with drums. Rainey commanded the revolving drum chair on March 3rd and the two sets were recorded as a remarkable live document of fully improvised music making from three masters, released now as Live at The 55 Bar.
Monder has made a mark on the contemporary jazz world as a brilliant technician, virtuosic soloist and meticulous composer. The concept for his nearly 25-year partnership with Malaby was to focus on improvisation, as the saxophonist’s energy and creativity have always provided a perfect foil for the guitarist. Monder’s relationship with the versatile Rainey goes back even farther to the guitarist’s first demo recordings in the early 1990s; their familiarity is obvious in the ease of communication between them.
There are many active elements in this type of musical approach. Monder considers performing with this amalgamation particularly rewarding because of his bandmates’ abundance of ideas and penchant for improvising compositionally. These traits allow the music to evolve naturally, in a long-form manner, granting the musicians the ability to venture into different places without repeating themselves.
Three long improvisations were recorded that night, each piece unfolding organically. The ebb and flow and the building of tension to release demonstrate just how confident these musicians are in their craft of composing on the fly, in full control of their musical choices. The recording was made by the brilliant producer Joseph Branciforte, who was able to provide gorgeous studio quality sound and help with the narrative arc for the completed recording.
The trio took the suite approach to heart, naming the three pieces as such with the date of performance. The beginning segment, “Suite 3320 – Part I,” begins quietly with guitar arpeggiations, searching tenor moans and skittering drums. The brooding feel blossoms as Malaby pokes and prods at melodic ideas and the ambient guitar harmonics begin to unfurl more and more. Rainey’s tempo and volume build the intensity, and the guitar distortion adds to the density of sound.
“Suite 3320 – Part II” was actually almost the entire second set played on the evening of March 3rd. Malaby’s playful soprano jousts with Rainey’s lightly played snare as Monder patiently builds. The percussion focuses the group in its ascendancy. The saxophone and guitar push against one another, the dissonance electrifying the proceedings. The intensity breaks with waves of controlled reverbed guitar feedback and ghostly plucked tones over pounding drums. The thirty-minute performance rolls through echoing, ambient valleys and rocky, percussive slopes.
The concluding “Suite 3320 – Part III” initially finds the trio in a hazily disjointed space. Malaby’s sputtering tenor vocalizes and bleats over Monder’s dark, densely-packed and reverb-drenched guitar manipulations. Rainey’s drums are relentless as the trio’s level of intensity remains full tilt. A sudden break finds the musicians in an icy realm of false calm, Monder’s cold ominous waves of sound only broken by Malaby’s entreating sax.
Monder, Malaby and Rainey’s Live at The 55 Bar is a rare document of the guitarist convening an impressively supportive and expansive unit in a purely improvisational setting. The recording should reinforce the importance of, and will surely whet the appetite for, live improvised music made in the moment.
Ben Monder - guitar
Tony Malaby - saxophone
Tom Rainey - drums
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