Saturday, April 11, 2020

CD Review: Liberty Ellman - Last Desert

Liberty Ellman
Last Desert

Guitarist Liberty Ellman's music is constructed in such a way that all the performers have interlocking parts that all work together. Although members of the band get a chance to lead the music at various times, it doesn't always sound like they're playing a solo, definitely not in the traditional sense. Often times trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson makes a brief, brightly colored statement which is quickly followed by alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, who fires off a series of rapid lines. The brevity of these moments in a piece like "The Sip" makes them feel more like an open section where the players recline in the mood of the music, rather than play over changes. 

Even though Ellman's sextet locks in with one another, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a smooth ride either. In "Doppler," the guitarist, bassist Stephan Crump, tubaist Jose Davila and drummer Damion Reid roll on a moderate 6/8 while Lehman and Finlayson play a staccato melody in four on top of them. The horns aren't playing the kind of melody that meets the other players every few bars either. It feels a little unsettling, but anyone familiar with fellow Pi artist Steve Coleman (with whom Finlayson plays) can hear the musical logic as these two parts move as one.

It helps that this group knows each other so well too. They all played on Ellman's last album, Radiate, in 2015 and their paths have crossed in other projects.  The guitarist and Davila both play in Henry Threadgill's Zooid. Lehman's octet features Davila and Finlayson, and his trio includes Reid. Crump also plays with Ellman in the bassist's Rosetta Trio. The comfort they exude makes the music flow easily.

While the two-part title track might be the album's centerpiece, the eight-minute "Portals" offers a detailed account of how the band moves.  After a haunting, out of tempo melody, Crump plays a throughtful bass interlude marked by both rapid plucking and open space. Then Reid shapes the mood with a pulse that cues everyone, sans Davila, back in. Ellman favors single note lines, drawing on his unique melodic scope. The guitarist sounds a bit like his mind wants to rush but his notes always sound crisp. When he does play polyphonically, particularly in "Lost Desert Part 1," it adds to bright splash of color to the setting, even if the attack happens quickly. 

In the end, one of the most impressive things about Lost Desert might be that no one comes across as a leader in this music. Everyone's role is equally significant and all six of them shift between support roles, which add clarity, and moments where they take center stage, with no easy way to predict when the role will change. Just keep listening to discover how this happens.

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