If at first you don't relate what 31-year-old Tom McNalley plays to what you know of the guitar, don't be put off. He's not approaching either the instrument or his music in a conventional way.
Distorted effects, clean picking, ferocious fusillades, crystalline confessional reveries, angular melodies, unexpected lyricism and well-placed accompanying chords are all part of the improvisational mix.
“Tom's all the things you'd want in a musician,” says trumpeter and San Diego State teacher Jeff Kaiser. “His musical sensibility transcends the instrument. He's known for his free-form electric guitar playing but I've had him demonstrate classic slide and traditional blues techniques to my blues classes.”
Trombonist Mike Vlatkovich first ran across the teenage McNalley in Portland. “He was studying with trumpeter Rob Blakeslee and saxophonist Dave Gross,” Vlatkovich notes. “It was unusual for me to find someone so incredibly passionate about this music; he was like a sponge. And he was certainly not playing like a standard guitarist — you wouldn't hear Tom playing tunes in a lounge.”
McNalley would later be invited to improvise with the trombonist and the late poet Dorothea Grossman in their Call and Response duo. “He figured out what I was doing immediately,” says Vlatkovich. “Soloing is one of his strong points, so he worked to compliment the words and create pictures with sound.”
Portland saxophonist Rich Halley has also tracked McNalley since the latter's teen years. “Playing with Michael has helped Tom develop his own stuff further,” says Halley. “Call and Response got him into subtle sound shadings. But his involvement with Caribbean music has added more depth and aliveness to Tom's playing.”
Shortly after McNalley moved to Los Angeles in 2005, he met the displaced Haitian musicians who congregated around TiGeorge's Chicken in Echo Park and began playing with them. “They taught me the Kompa style,” McNalley relates from his L.A. home. “It's a little more rhythmically and harmonically intricate than Soka. The chord progressions are longer and the rhythms are very funky — more African. That led me to Rasim, which is Creole for ‘roots.' That's harmonically simpler but rhythmically very rich and extremely intense. It's basically voodoo music.”
By then McNalley had begun traveling to New York and spending quality time with Harmolodic avatar Ornette Coleman. “I played with the Haitians right after I got back from New York one time, and when I took it further out they went bonkers, yelling ‘Heat it up!' The melodies are strong in both kinds of music.”
Coleman is not known for being either forthcoming or outgoing, yet the guitarist has been granted unusual access to the enigmatic alto saxophonist. “There were no barriers to him explaining the nuts-and-bolts of his music,” McNalley reveals. “He taught me specific things like certain pivot notes that can modulate from key to key. He's quite brilliant.”
Of all the situations he plays in, McNalley is particularly fond of his trio with bassist Scott Walton and drummer Alex Cline. That configuration opens for saxophonist Peter Kuhn at Cline's Open Gate Theatre offering Sunday at Eagle Rock's Center for the Arts.
“I love playing with them,” McNalley exults. “They're both very sensitive and very fast. They're such great musicians that I barely have to do anything at all — the music just plays itself. And they're both pretty devilish; you never know what's going to happen with them. They can add something subtle or explosive and it will immediately take the music to a new place.”
The goal for his music relates to McNalley's formative days. “I used to listen to Rob Blakeslee and drummer Billy Mintz play duets,” McNalley muses. “I must have heard them 20 or 30 times and they just knocked me out every time. It put me in a dreamlike state and afterwards I just felt cleansed. Ornette does the same thing to me when he plays. That's what I want to do — make the strongest, most beautiful music possible.”
What: Tom McNalley Trio
Where: Center for the Arts, 2225 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock.
When: Sunday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m.
More info: (323) 226-1617, centerartseaglerock.org
KIRK SILSBEE writers about jazz and culture for Marquee.