Guitarist Liberty Ellman is a quiet presence, unused to grabbing the attention of listeners or concertgoers. Versatile and always complementary, he plays with equal ease when negotiating a complex new jazz composition in Henry Threadgill’s Zooid band and or when playing polyrhythmic Afropop-jazz with the singer Somi. Ellman has several prior recordings on Pi Recordings, and each one drives him closer to being a composer and player demanding increasingly serious attention.
HIs 2003 Pi debut, Tactiles, might almost have been one of those fabulous quartet records made by John Scofield and Joe Lovano 30 years ago, with Mark Shim’s tenor and Ellman’s guitar intertwining on knotty but driving themes. Even then, Ellman’s writing was significantly informed by his schooling in more experimental shades of improvised music, but the sense of blues and guts was higher. Three years later on Ophiucous Butterfly, Ellman was using a more orchestral band, adding Steve Lehman’s alto saxophone and Jose Davila on tuba in addition to Shim and the rhythm section, with the music becoming that much headier and complex.
The same band that appears on Ellman’s latest, Last Desert, also made 2015’s Radiate, with Damion Reid now on drums and Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet in place of Shim’s tenor. The sonorities are wide and wonderful on both records. Lehman capable of ballad and acid, Finlayson usually tart but sometimes mellow and capable of growling at you, while the leader typically plays bell-toned jazz guitar that blends beautifully with everything. Davila’s tuba can shiver in the background as well as funkify things as necessary, paired with bass stalwart Stephan Crump.
Last Desert builds on its predecessor and extends its eclectic blend of off-kilter groove, textural exploration, thrilling improvisation, and subtle new jazz. The music most typically finds a way to crackle like vintage Blue Note jazz while lurching in strange metric patterns that come from the compositional experiments of the last 20 years. “Rubber Flowers”, for example, provides both of those pleasures in spades. It opens with trumpet, alto sax, and guitar playing a mostly-unison line that could have appeared on a Lee Morgan album in 1966, as Reid, Crump, and Davila punch out a strutting rhythm that is part New Orleans and part oddball Brooklyn, all scamp and bristle. The improvising begins with Lehman’s knife-sharpened alto alternating passages with Ellman’s electric guitar. The two bass lines (bass and tuba) are riveting in conversation beneath these traded melodies, all while Reid seems to be freely improvising around the rest. It is a super-fun ride that sets up a more lyrical solo from Finlayson before a return to the theme.
“Doppler” is even more dizzying if a bit more difficult to groove to. Alto and trumpet play a staccato/syncopated line as the guitar and tuba carve out independent lines that curl around each other. Crump and Reid hold a circular groove in some version of 9/8 beneath all of that, creating a psychedelic parade music or a soundtrack for your weirdest dream. Finlayson, Ellman, and Lehman again take turns in not-too-long phrases, cycling around one at a time. Lehman plays thrilling passages of double-time, Ellman manages to play with pure swing phrasing despite the jagged new jazz environment, and Finlayson embodies ease. Immediately after this tune, “Liquid” moves with a similar aesthetic, quick and light even as it becomes the most complex chart on Last Desert. Ellman’s solo is his most compelling on the recording: full of blues phrasing and odd surprise, but never harsh. Then, over a B theme that is swaying like an ocean tide, Davila takes his best solo on the record—a tenor-register cry that sounds light and cloud-bound. Wow.
Interestingly, the band swings a good bit—finding ways to flow even across herky-jerky oddball rhythmic schemes. Usually, that sense of “jazz” phrasing is expressed in the soloists’ easy, fluid playing against less elastic backings. But there is driving, uptempo swing on “Last Desert I”, which begins with a section of written chamber jazz that mostly avoids a tonal center but then opens up into elastic joy. Crump’s bass is the key, pushing the rhythm section into something that has a chewy, Mingus-like center. The band doesn’t move in classic walking quarter notes at first. Ellman and Crump, who have played together for so long, are telepathic in a trio with Reid. But beneath Finlayson’s fluttering statement, Crump shifts into double-time swing that could have come from a great record featuring Paul Chambers. The transitions are natural as can be. This is the new jazz without awkwardness.
There’s also swing in the ballad-like opening track, “The Sip”. Ellman and Crump could be Jim Hall and Ron Carter in the song album’s opening moments—conversationally bringing in the cushion of the horns as Reid uses his brushes in support. The harmonies are beautiful but, sure, ambiguous. This is still the new jazz, but it is lovely in every respect, with the players straying from written lines in a lush, relaxed counterpoint of chatter. “Portals” also moves at ballad tempo in its start, allowing the guitar to lead as the horns work as a choral backing. After a Crump solo, however, Ellman takes his longest and most developed solo of the session, allowing the rhythm to get back to a fast swing tempo. Lehman and Finlayson are given a chance to chase each other around the block again, trading statements, as Crump pulses four to the floor.
It is thematically fitting that there are so many sections of these performances in which the players seem to be racing in tandem. The title is a reference to the 4 Deserts ultra-marathon, which takes competitors through four forbidding terrains. Ellman’s writing sets up his players to fly, most certainly, but it isn’t a particularly forbidding environment. Unlike much of the new jazz—where the music borrows an acid edge from rock, a snarling cry from funk, and a taste for the atonal/dissonant from modern classical music—Ellman creates tunes that invite your ear even if the compositions are complex. As a result, the soloists are rarely inclined to scream or rattle, screech, or play far beyond the written harmonies.
The result, then, is a thrilling adventure but not a trial. The music demands that you pay careful attention, but not that you tolerate harsh tonalities. There is much to captivate and enough luxury along the way—so that the unusual structures and lack of bluesy resolutions don’t seem like a detrimental void. The general influence of Henry Threadgill’s writing is unmistakable, but Liberty Ellman puts a reasonable coating of icing on his boss’s cake.
Last Desert is unafraid to charm you as well as challenge you.