Novela is an ideal title for an album with so much narrative appeal. All sorts of stories are told through the music on this unusual retrospective, which consists of songs written by saxophonist Tony Malaby for trios and quartets over the past decade and newly arranged for nonet by pianist Kris Davis. With its richly developed themes and wide stylistic reach, this is an album to curl up with.
Like the weather in Chicago (whose schools of free jazz provide their share of edgy inspiration), the temperature of Novela can change in a flash. The warm crosscurrents of “Mother’s Love” give way to chilly swells and agitated lines from Joachim Badenhorst’s bass clarinet, and then to a haunted symphonic closing. “Floating Head,” a work of both interchangeable parts and independent gears keyed to Dan Peck’s animated time-marking tuba, shifts from Greek tragedy to circus music to West Side Story. “Warblepeck” is Kurt Weill filtered through Henry Threadgill’s Very Very Circus.
Davis, who mostly stays in the background on piano, creates neat pockets of space for improvising—Malaby on tenor, Ralph Alessi on trumpet and Michael Attias on alto saxophone make the strongest statements. (The group also includes baritone saxophonist Andrew Hadro, trombonist Ben Gerstein and drummer John Hollenbeck, mostly holding nothing back.) And on tunes like “Remolino,” with its sharp thrusts and impressionistic streaks, there’s a sense of group improvisation as well. But the bold, unified voice of the ensemble speaks loudest, making Novela a page-turner you’ll want to revisit many times.