Tenor saxophone, upright bass and drums: that’s all there is to Play Nice, the latest full-length release from Vancouver’s Malleus Trio. While the ingredients might be simple, the versatility and musicianship with which Dominic Conway, Geordie Hart and Ben Brown play their instruments make for an all but simple collection of modern instrumental jazz songs.
It’s easy to imagine the tenor saxophone taking over the focus in this instrumentation, with the drums and bass relegated to play a supporting role. Yet Conway’s dynamic playing doesn’t fall into that trap. There are ample moments throughout the record where the sax is the star, overtaking the songs with incredibly dextrous solos and piercing wails — but more often than not, Conway steers the song’s focus away from his own playing, either towards the other two instruments, or to the trio’s collective sound. That being said, this review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the virtuosic sax soloing at the end of “Blade Runner Brown.”
Geordie Hart’s bass playing matches Conway’s sax in it’s versatility and virtuosity. While Hart definitely firmly grounds the trio within every song they play, that doesn’t mean the upright bass misses it’s time in the spotlight. On tracks like “Tropical Currency” and “C Plus” the bass switches back and forth between relentlessly soloing and providing a solid base from which the other two instruments can explode outwards.
And finally, the drum kit, expertly played by Ben Brown, is as exciting on Play Nice as it could possibly be. Whether it’s locking in with the bass and holding it down, like in the titular opening track “Play Nice” to adding atmosphere and ambience like in “Old Romantics” to the slow and deep groove, with almost trap-like hi-hats in “Foghorn Factory,” Brown’s drumming occupies just about every role the drums could play in a jazz record.
Over the course of twelve songs, Malleus Trio shape-shift from one form of jazz to another, effortlessly pulling off quick-paced, groove-heavy hard bop of “Thereabouts,” to the amorphous free-improv sections of “5 to 9” and “Half Full.” But the way the three musicians play with one another — complementing each other’s styles, making space for each instrument and seamlessly locking back in together — is really what ties the record together. And if any one song that encompasses all the elements that make Play Nice such an engrossing record, the final track “Ritual” ticks all the boxes.