In retrospect, the temptation exists to view Live at the 55 Bar as some kind of prediction of what was about to unfold across the country following its recording. Guitarist Ben Monder, saxophonist Tony Malaby, and drummer Tom Rainey stepped onto the stage of the New York City bar on March 3, 2020 and spontaneously created music that was eerie and rife with tension. Within weeks, the city would be shut down thanks to COVID-19, putting musical meetings like Monder’s Tuesday-night residency at the 55 Bar on extended furlough.
“Suite 3320” is divided into three tracks, totaling about an hour. It’s a sprawling three-way conversation, but each player has moments in one of the tracks where his contributions really elevate the group’s work. In “Part I,” Malaby’s brawny tenor takes the spotlight, alternating rasps and throaty wails as it goes up against Monder’s gentle arpeggios and, later, sustained effects-heavy chords. Malaby also plays soprano on the nearly half-hour “Part II.” Here Monder reveals his skill at creating rich tones, even at a low volume. As he shifts to the background, his feedback and chords blend until they roar like a jet. Rainey doesn’t propel the music aggressively with his drums, preferring to respond with stealth textures.
By “Part III,” however, the trio has reached a boiling point, and Rainey’s frenetic pounding all over his kit gives it the push it needs. Until the audience applauds in the album’s final seconds, it’s easy to forget these rich, occasionally unsettling soundscapes were created in an intimate club rather than a studio.