Mirror Me
OmniTone 12203

Songlines SGL SA 1545-2

Commentators often ascribe a certain innate togetherness to the playing of married couples who record together, which in reality is no more than the sort of sympatico feelings band members can express for one another. More critically, husband and wife musicians can and should develop separate musical personalities.

That’s the fascination and interest in MIRROR ME and APPARITIONS. For while Jersey City, N.J. saxophonist Tony Malaby and pianist Angelica Sanchez have been married since 1998 and together for years before that, their albums aren’t that much similar than any two others by a pianist and saxophonist. The tenor and soprano man may play on his better half’s CD, in fact, but the outcome is different.

Seconded by bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tom Rainey, both of whom have a long-time association with Tim Berne, the pianist’s CD has more of a lyrical quality than Malaby’s. This perhaps relates to her background as a Mexican-American from Arizona who adored Elton John as a teenager and is still a big fan of traditional country music icons like Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn.

Ethnicity can’t be used as an explanation of everything of course. For Malaby is also a Mexican-American from Tucson. Yet his CD is more hard-edged, with the reedist, best-known for his tenure in bassist Mark Helias’ Open Loose trio, constantly on — producing reed-testing exhibition along the lines of earlier tenor men like Booker Ervin and Dexter Gordon.

APPARITIONS also lacks the gentling hand of his wife’s piano output. While the highly inventive and subtle Rainey is present so is another drummer, Michael Sarin, who usually splits percussion duties with Rainey in Open Loose. Also, not surprising for a saxist used to playing with first-class bassists like Helias and Mark Dresser, the bass chair here is held down by Drew Gress, whose versatility lands him gigs with players ranging from romantics like pianist Fred Hersch to drummer John Hollenbeck’s post-modern Claudia Quintet.

It’s Gress’s rock-solid bass undercurrent that holds together the 10 tunes on Malaby’s disc, all self-composed, as are the eight pieces on Sanchez’s CD. Unconsciously perhaps echoing those New Thing bands of the 1960s that had two percussionists, the saxman says he used the double trap sets because playing in this structure is “like taking a warm bath, just being surrounded by that sound and falling into it”.

But that means that as early as “Picacho”, Gress’s four square bass line must anchor the serpentine theme as both percussionists bounce cascading rhythms around and back-and-forth — sometimes sounding as if they’re hand drumming — and Malaby snorts, rhythmically note bends, and uses semi-squeals to expand his improvisational field.

This southwestern sense of space, visualized both externally and internally helps give some compositions such as the title track a certain borderlessness. Built around an irregular drumbeat and shaking, maracas-like timbres from the percussionists, eventually the four players appear to split into two duos. Gress and Malaby are the second duo, reacting to one another like a couple of ballroom dancers. Although the split tones and whistles Malaby formulates seem to come from his gooseneck more than any other part of his horn, the bassist’s cello-register sweeps and high-on-the-neck plucks amplify and extends the other’s reed work until the crowing theme is reprised.

Living up to its title, “Fast Tip” gets its momentum from the drummers’ supercharged bounces, ruffs and cymbal crashes, while Malaby with his flinty bop-toned honks in double time moves back and forth between chesty centre horn emphasis and light-fingered, frequently expelled squeals.

His ability to spin out chorus after chorus of impenetrable tough tenor timbres à la Ervin is framed in a more traditional setting on “Mambo Chueco”. Rainey and Sarin pound behind him, Gress double stops and Malaby’s airy swing and pronounced slurs evolve into digressions on thematic variations. Among the cross rhythms from the percussionists though, there seems to be a sophisticated display of trading fours until the saxman ends with a foghorn-like vibration.

Recorded 16 months earlier, it appears that Malaby is on hand to toughen up what could be heard as the straightforwardness in Sanchez’s compositions. On “Ajo Comino”, for instance, the line seems to flow on its own momentum until the saxist introduces some offside, obtuse murmuring that livens up what almost sounds like equal temperament from the pianist. Soon she’s splashing out concise, right-handed octaves adding subtle inflections from her left hand every so often. His double tonguing and note squeezes amplify her steady comping throughout.

“Tragón” — which certainly doesn’t paint a sound picture of her translation of the Spanish as “big slob” — is another tune based on rolling piano arpeggios. As her fingers skip over the keyboard adding syncopated, seesaw piano lines with striking pedal pressure. Rainey contributes nerve beats and rim shots, Malaby andante alto-like trills and Formanek a speedy doubled-stopping bass solo that moves around the strings until settling into a steady plucked Paul Chambers-like pace.

Here and on his own disc Malaby shows off his reed prowess. Besides regular, well-proportioned tones from his tenor, he’s able to make his soprano and even the bigger horn variously resemble an alto saxophone, a clarinet or a flute. His wavering clarinet tone is especially noticeable on “Mirror me” as is his indefatigable ability to keep sounding variations on the theme. Rainey’s snare and rim shot stylings are as impressive as always, both here and on Malaby’s CD. But he’s such an understated drummer that he doesn’t get the same sort of accolades that routinely go to flashier players.

Other tunes revolve on the counterpoint that the pianist and saxman can produce playing together. However, there’s still the uneasy feeling throughout that if he — or someone else — didn’t push her she wouldn’t loosen up hers soloing. That’s why the flashing octave runs she snakes out on “Quick Tipper” are so welcome.

On the downside however there’s one balladic piece and another track where her soloing is half-ECM-like float and half restrained mainstream swing. These are so mired in low frequency vibrations and softer dynamics that they never inspire.

Despite this the couple has produced two agreeable CDs. With is strength and bluster, Malaby’s is stronger. But it’s very likely that Sanchez’s outlook has also toughened up in the 2½ years since her debut disc. Both continue to be young musicians to watch — and hear.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Apparitions: The Mestizo Suite: 1. Picacho 2. Humo 3. Mambo Chueco 4. Talpa 5. Voladores 6. Fast Tip 7. Apparitions 8. Dos Caminos 9. Jersey Merge 10. Tula

Personnel: Apparitions: Tony Malaby (soprano and tenor saxophones); Drew Gress (bass); Michael Sarin (drums); Tom Rainey (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Mirror: 1. Fresh Hell 2. Wisteria 3. Mirror Me 4. Tragón 6. Quick Tipper 7. Weirdo 8. Ajo Comino

Personnel: Mirror: Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone); Angelica Sanchez (piano); Michael Formanek (bass); Tom Rainey (drums)