Musicians have two choices when they play the Internet Café: They can set up side by side against the left wall, angling themselves slightly to face the audience, or they can perform directly across from each other while foot traffic passes in between. Saxophonist Tony Malaby, who spars with different partners here every Wednesday night, tends to brace himself against the right-hand wall, literally facing someone new each week.
The series got off to a shaky start at the beginning of January, as the intended rhythm section was a no-show. Last-minute substitute bassist Drew Gress proved an aggressive melodic partner, while drummer Elliot Kavee offered subtle support. Seven days later, Malaby and Tim Berne blew white-hot shards of metallic skronk, pivoting back and forth at the waist like the insatiable “drinking birds” everyone’s grandfather used to have. Angelica Sanchez, Malaby’s wife, stabbed out spacey chords on a Fender Rhodes, and drummer Tom Rainey whipped everything into a caldera of swirling, molten sound for the standing-room-only crowd.
“Some people have suggested that I’m in danger of overexposure by doing this, and maybe they’ve got a point,” Malaby says the following week, gesturing toward a room full of empty seats moments prior to his first set. (Twenty or so minutes later, a respectable turnout will assemble, fashionably late.) In a reversal of the norm, here the drawing power of the sidemen often dictates the size of the audience.
When Malaby hit town around 1995, he apprenticed himself to some of downtown’s most progressive leaders, including Berne and Marty Ehrlich. He quickly gained a reputation as a bright young player blurring the lines between mainstream structure and avant-garde abandon. Lately he’s begun to stake his claim as leader. And while he’s proven himself capable of holding his own with the city’s caffeinated buzz, Malaby filled his new album, Sabino, with the wide-open spaces of his native Arizona. His own music moves with the ebb and flow of the waters running through the canyon that lent the disc its name.
The new year has found Malaby playing somewhere different almost every night. But the Wednesday-night series at the Internet is reserved for first-time encounters designed to jolt the saxophonist out of set patterns and clichés. “If you play with the same people all the time, you get stuck in the same old habits, ” he explains.
With bassist John Hebert and drummer Scott McLemore came music stands and written tunes. Malaby was expansive, blowing long melodic lines with his big, burnished sound. As he finished each solo, his eyes remained closed, his body still swaying in thrall to the music. A subsequent duo date with the voluble Rainey edged into ecstatic free blowing that invoked the spirit of late-model Coltrane. It proved little more than a minor annoyance to a blond in leather pants parked at one of the PCs that dot the venue. She chatted about her e-mail with a companion, occasionally looking up to see what everyone was staring at.