Liberty Ellman – Radiate [TrackList follows] – Pi

Liberty Ellman – Radiate [TrackList follows] – Pi PI60, 42:26 [8/21/15] ****:

(Liberty Ellman – guitar, producer, mixing, mastering; Steve Lehman – alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson – trumpet; Jose Davila – tuba, trombone; Stephen Crump – bass; Damion Reid – drums)

There are jazz guitarists who favor traditionalism. There are those who prefer fusion. Some are involved in free jazz/free improvisation. And then there is Liberty Ellman. His jazz music does not fit any specific type of jazz; it has its own form, its own shape, and its own unique perspective. And it’s always pure Ellman. The guitarist is probably best known as a key and charter member of Henry Threadgill’s Zooid. Ellman has also worked with jazz personalities such as Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Myra Melford, and Jason Robinson. In recent years, Ellman has also become a busy mixer/engineer who has helped on projects by Threadgill, Sam Rivers, Steve Lehman, Iyer and others: which may explain why Ellman’s last solo release was 2006’s acclaimed Ophiuchus Butterfly.

Ellman is back in the limelight with his new album, the 42-minute Radiate, his third for Pi Recordings and his fourth as a leader since 1997. Ellman’s eight originals display his broad range and versatility, from fast and furious opener (“Supercell”) to quietly emotional (the short stunner “Moment Twice”). Throughout, Ellman (who solely uses electric guitar throughout the eight pieces) is supported by an impressive sextet: fellow Zooid participant Jose Davila (who doubles on tuba and trombone); alto saxophonist Steve Lehman; trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson (who has performed as part of M-Base founder Steve Coleman’s Five Elements); bassist Stephen Crump (both Crump and Lehman are regular collaborators of pianist Iyer); and drummer Damion Reid.

The five-minute “Supercell” is a sonic wonder and showcases what the rest of the material is like. Crump and Reid develop a dynamic, multi-changing groove. The arrangement shifts from amalgamated aspects to disconnected delineations. The interaction is interesting, to say the least. Drums and tuba, for example, mesh at times to create a funk-leaning backdrop, while the alto sax and trumpet push and surge with sinewy sway: often, the horns finish or start each other’s phrases. Ellman takes the leadership role, and yet everyone influences the outcome. Anyone who wants to experience this in a live setting can view a 5:33 version of “Supercell” online. There is a similar facet of freedom and conceptualism on the nearly nine-minute “Rhinocerisms,” which has a comparable sense of intertwining inclinations and contrasting intensities. Lehman and Ellman exchange motifs while the band’s bass-bottom elements (Davila’s tuba, Reid’s drums and Crump’s bass) thrust and tow, crafting a complex rhythmic current. Another five-minute cut, “A Motive,” maintains Ellman’s intricate and groove-lashed imagination. The track operates in unpredictable ways, like a puzzle within a puzzle, each fragment dovetailed to manufacture a distinctive impact. When Ellman steps to the front and solos, his polyphonic stance is superb.

Ellman’s artistry conveys more than just upfront psychology. There is slower, softer but no less adventurous fare such as the tender and variable “Futhermore,” where Crump utilizes arco bass which brushes sinuously against the horns. The arrangement has a vibrant lyricism which seems separate from the cadenced convolutions of other numbers, but eventually the six players generate a faster-paced progress which matches the deliberation of the other tunes. Sensitivity suffuses the briefest composition, the 1:48 “Moment Twice,” a trio conception with Ellman, Reid and Crump. “Moment Twice” concludes far too soon. The first half of the involved “Skeletope” features the full band, and then morphs into a bass solo statement where Crump employs a tasteful tonality. His unaccompanied bass slides the group into the intro to the absorbing and driving “Vibrograph,” where Lehman provides significant sax and Ellman improvises with purpose. “Vibrograph,” like much of the other music, is held together by Reid’s energizing drums and percussive slices. The final piece is the vividly-colored “Enigmatic Runner,” a challenging, electro-acoustic synthesis which demonstrates Ellman’s forward-looking method. Reid’s top-level pulse has a semi-machine quality which accentuates the hip-hop/rap-esque tempo; while Ellman’s skittery guitar and the multiple horns supply a mixture of metrical subtleties and brightly-lit improvisational portions. Jazz fans who prefer progressive-minded musicians who deconstruct jazz, such as Joe Lovano, Jason Moran or Wadada Leo Smith, should find the time to hear or discover what Ellman is doing.

TrackList: Supercell; Furthermore; Rhinocerisms; Moment Twice; A Motive; Skeletope; Vibrograph; Enigmatic Runner.

—Doug Simpson

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