Monday, October 12, 2015

CD Review: Liberty Ellman - Radiate

Liberty Ellman

In a way, it comes as kind of a surprise that guitarist Liberty Ellman hasn't released an album under his own name in nine years. But on further thought, he's so busy popping up in other places as a support player that he might not have the time.

Ellman's best-known connection is a nearly 15-year tenure with Henry Threadgill's band Zooid, the longest lasting band of the reedist/composer's career. But Ellman's guitar has also been heard on albums by Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio, on Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa's Dual Identity album and performances with everyone from Butch Morris to Joe Lovano. As a mixing engineer, his name seems even more ubiquitous, having turned knobs for Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer & Mike Ladd and Gregory Porter just to name a few.

For his first album since 2006's Ophiuchus Butterfly, Ellman cashed in his chips and assembled an A-list group of friends. Lehman and Crump are here, as well as Zooid bandmate Jose Davila (tuba, trombone), Five Elements' Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and man about town Damion Reid (drums).

Not to downplay the skills at work in this ensemble - who mesh incredibly in these intricate pieces - but Ellman is the kind of guitarist that could pull off something just as enthralling with only the rhythm section to back him. His plays using vocabulary that's just off\kilter enough and delivers it with one of the most enchanting tones since Bill Frisell patented his signature volume pedal-fueled attack. "Moment Twice" almost acts like a tease, with guitar, bass and drums playing a theme statement for just under two minutes. "Furthermore" has a rubato rolling accompaniment from Crump and Reid, which Ellman uses to produce a dream soundtrack, picking clean lines that speed up and slow down at will. The horns eventually join him, but only to add color in the background. The focus remains on the guitar.

Ellman's writing gets rather knotty, with patterns that morph just when Reid's snare hits start to make it easy to find the structure. Threadgill might be an influence but a comparison could be made to Steve Coleman's angular writing, though Ellman stays closer to the groove end of things. The horns never sound constricted by the time signature. Davila's role alternates between rhythm section member ("Supercell') and soloist ("Rhinocerisms," where the low horn fits the name, and "A Motive," where he switches to trombone).

Lehman's rapid technique is put to good use, most notably in "Vibrograph," where he fires off some descending lines, throwing off clusters of five, almost as a passing thought. Between that song and the preceding "Skeletope," Crump plays a bass solo that, conversely, offers open space for reflection, similar to Charlie Haden in its pensiveness.

For the closing "Enigmatic Runner" Ellman gives himself the chance to cut loose. Storming in like a distorted, progressive rocker, he tears through a rugged, extended line that is either one of the best guitar solos of the year or one of the most astounding through-composed sections in longer. On cue, Finlayson and Lehman come in right as Ellman concludes his statement.

Will this group ever perform live and, if so, will it ever happen beyond the borders of New York? Probably not, considering all the schedules that come into play. In the meantime, grab this and get lost in it.

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