Saxophonist Tony Malaby's unlikely pandemic practice space: the New Jersey Turnpike Saxophonist Tony Malaby, unlucky at the beginning of the pandemic after catching a very early case of the virus — the subsequent isolation imposed on his playing led him to a unique solution.

Saxophonist Tony Malaby's unlikely pandemic practice space: the New Jersey Turnpike

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By now, we've heard a few variations on the pandemic lockdown record release. Most were produced in a bedroom or adapted from a livestream or just made with the benefit of all that extra downtime. Now a noted jazz artist has a new album that puts a fresh spin on that idea. Nate Chinen from Jazz Night in America and member station WBGO has that story.


NATE CHINEN, BYLINE: For more than 25 years, Tony Malaby has been one of the most riveting saxophonists in jazz, a dauntless explorer who's also at home with direct emotional expression. His ability to toggle between traditional and experimental modes has been a trademark since he released an auspicious debut album, "Sabino," at the turn of the century.

More recently, in March of 2020, Malaby made a live recording at the 55 Bar in New York with two longtime collaborators, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Tom Rainey.

TONY MALABY: And I got violently ill two days later, and I was down for about 2 1/2 weeks. And it took me months to get up to 15 minutes of playing the tenor. I would start feeling like I was going to pass out.

CHINEN: It was just as he feared.

MALABY: I had COVID early on.

CHINEN: For a saxophonist, especially someone known for the strength of his projection, this was more than destabilizing. Remember how little we knew about COVID-19 in those early weeks, let alone how many jazz musicians we lost, and you can imagine Malaby's concern.

MALABY: And at the same time, you're dying to practice and play, but everybody's home. Everybody's in the building, and everybody's on edge. And the minute I would start, there'd be knocks on the door or the phone would ring.

CHINEN: By that summer, he'd begun playing beneath an overpass of the New Jersey Turnpike near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel.


CHINEN: If that story sounds vaguely familiar, it has a famous parallel. Jazz titan Sonny Rollins pursued a similar tactic in the late 1950s and early '60s on a pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. But Malaby wasn't just looking for a place to strengthen his sound, and he wasn't seeking solitude. Like many of us in the summer of 2020, he was desperate for connection. So he began to invite his fellow musicians over for regular sessions as often as a few times a week.


CHINEN: Bassist Michael Formanek recalls his shock the first time he rolled up to the spot.

MICHAEL FORMANEK: And I was just looking around going, like, what is this? This is like this bizarre kind of "Apocalypse Now" in the tunnels - and almost like a movie set in another way because it was so over-the-top, you know, with graffiti and dirt and stuff all over the ground. And, (laughter) you know, it was pretty - you know, pretty amazing.

CHINEN: Malaby recorded many of these sessions and released some of them as a series of digital albums called "The Turnpike Diaries." The first volume features Formanek and a handful of others, like saxophonist Tim Berne.

Malaby kept the party going for an entire year. And when it was time to return to a proper recording studio, he took that renegade hospitality with him. His new album, "The Cave Of Winds," features a quartet with Formanek, Monder and Rainey, expanding on the open-ended yet focused style that is their common language.


CHINEN: For Malaby, who recently moved to Boston to teach at the Berklee College of Music, the new album reaches both forward and back. It reunites most of the band from "Sabino" and builds on the same social impulse that guided those turnpike sessions. Its defining trait is a spirit of unfolding intrigue that Malaby has always prized.

MALABY: There's aspects of it that - it's really hard to talk about. And when you play with somebody who's playing from that place, it's enthralling. It's full of mystery. It's full of this magic, I mean, that got me into improvising.

CHINEN: And as we continue to feel our way through the pandemic timeline, we'll take whatever magic we can get.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Chinen.


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