The Nick Fraser Quartet with Tony Malaby, Andrew Downing, and Rob Clutton
Independent, 2016


Too Many Continents
Nick Fraser / Tony Malaby / Kris Davis
Clean Feed, 2015

Toronto drummer Nick Fraser has had a productive and innovative partnership with NYC saxophonist Tony Malaby over the past few years, including multiple tours together in Canada and the U.S. In 2013, Fraser released his first album with Malaby, Towns and Villages. He's now followed that up with two more joint albums.

Nick Fraser/Too Many Continents CD cover
Nick Fraser/Too Many Continents CD cover

Too Many Continents, with Malaby and Canadian-born pianist Kris Davis, was released late last fall with a U.S. tour. It received its Canadian release with a mini-tour in May which included Ottawa. That tour also was the official release of Starer, in which Fraser and Malaby work with two of Fraser's most frequent musical collaborators: cellist Andrew Downing and bassist Rob Clutton.

In their live shows, Fraser and Malaby consistently push the edges, in intense improvisations. They don't do straight ballads or bebop; the pieces they play don't have defined heads or specific places for solos. Instead they take compositional sketches, and use those sketches as points of departure for group improvisation.

It's an approach they excel in, and they've followed it in both these albums. The result is about as near as you get in a studio album to completely free jazz, with opportunities to go in many different directions.

Which doesn't mean these two albums sound alike, despite being recorded relatively close together. With different collaborators, they have very different sounds.

Too Many Continents is very much informed by Kris Davis, whose intricate and percussive piano lines both anchor and energize this music. For example, on “I Needed It Yesterday”, she opens with fast intricate piano lines vibrating in place, and later builds up the tension in the piece with strong piano chords underneath Malaby's coruscating sax lines. Throughout the CD, she uses the piano as much or more as a rhythmic instrument than as a melodic one.

Primarily, though, this newer album is an ensemble piece. There is a fluid naturalness to the tracks, and a feeling of mutual support in the music. While Malaby's voice on saxophone is strong and demanding in places, he counterpoises it against Fraser's constantly-shifting textures on cymbals and drums, and Davis' emphatic piano. The result is sometimes subtly investigatory, sometimes meandering, and sometimes pounding an idea into the ground.

I particularly liked the title track, which opens delicately, almost hesitantly, with barely-there drumming, bright separated harpsichord-like notes on piano, and interrogatory passages on soprano saxophone. It slowly develops into a more demanding conversation – more edges than melody – and then briefly turns frantic and inchoate, before slowing into a echoing, walking-pace piano rhythm, and finally returning to the interrogatory mode.

“Nostalgia for the Recent Past” creates its impression of disquieting uncertainty through a surprising juxtaposition of sounds: a plaintive and uncertain saxophone sounding almost like a baby crying, fast repetitive piano lines reminding you of a doorbell being pressed over and over again, and a later sax line sounding like an ambulance horn – all eventually coalescing into an attenuated and raw-edge blues.

Overall, this is foreground music – not tunes that you can easily absorb while doing other things. But I enjoyed seeing how the trio developed their soundscapes, and the unexpected structures they built, with very little reference to the jazz tradition. It was well worth hearing.

Nick Fraser/Starer CD cover (drawing by Ryan Driver)
Nick Fraser/Starer CD cover (drawing by Ryan Driver)

Starer, on the other hand, does show a clearer link to tradition – but as much to the traditions of chamber music, Turkish music, and jazz manouche, as straight jazz. As in Towns and Villages, Andrew Downing on cello and Rob Clutton on double bass are featured on this album, and they have a major influence on the sound. All but two of the tunes begin with bass or cello, usually bowed, and the overall feel of this album is much closer to chamber jazz.

For example, the first track, “minimalism/416-538-7149”, opens with deep orchestral lines on cello, and features Malaby's sax shimmering over very ominous bowed cello and double bass. The music has a Middle Eastern feel, which may have been influenced by Downing's extensive experience collaborating with Turkish musicians.

Similarly, “Sketch #29” is formal and solemn, opening with just intertwined cello and bass, and with the sax and cymbals definitely supporting the stringed instruments. “Sketch #21” has Malaby's tenor echoing and counterpointing the processional style of the initial bass-cello duet.

The title track takes the bass/cello partnership in a different direction. They open together in a more exploratory mode, and, as Malaby picks up their patterns on saxophone, the whole eventually morphs into a twisted variant on gypsy jazz.

Malaby has a greater influence on “Sketch #26”. It starts out and remains fast and hard-edged, with a strong, rolling rhythm on drums. Malaby's punctuated sax grows in energy as the piece develops, almost screaming before the abrupt end.

“Sketch #20/22” was the piece I enjoyed most – for its first 8 minutes. It begins with an invocatory cymbal crash introducing light and beautiful lines on soprano saxophone. The piece has a late-19th/early 20th century classical feel, with shimmering soprano sax dancing over bowed cello. It is divided into sections by cymbal crashes, and allows both Downing and Clutton considerable room for experimenting, as they add shivering lines and harmonics on their instruments. Malaby adds contrast with raw individual notes on saxophone.

However, at the 8-minute mark, the piece takes an abrupt turn and becomes very frantic and atonal, and completely inconsistent with the previous shape of the piece. Perhaps this was when "Sketch #22" began? The abrupt discontinuity didn't work for me: the last section just felt tacked on, with no connection to the first.

Again, what I liked about this album was how all the musicians contributed to the sound. When it worked – and it generally did – it produced glorious and thought-provoking musical results.

I listened to each of these albums several times, and appreciated them more each time I listened. There are many beautifully-executed passages in both, and excellent examples of musical collaboration within improvisation. Recommended.

    – Alayne McGregor

Other interviews, reviews, and videos about Nick Fraser and Tony Malaby: