Liberty Ellman: Radiate

Liberty Ellman's first album in nine years makes the case that he should be composing and recording more often.
Liberty Ellman

Jazz guitarist Liberty Ellman hasn’t released a solo album since 2006’s Ophiuchus Butterfly. During that time, he has been a member of Henry Threadgill’s ever-active Zooid ensemble, producing in and performing with the modern jazz collective through their four most recent albums. So it should be to no one’s surprise that his 2015 album Radiate sounds like it didn’t fall far from the Zooid tree. So much so that the opening track “Supercell” sounds like it has yet to fall out of said tree. You can’t really blame him. In an era where we are surrounded by derivative music, Henry Threadgill stands out from the crowd ten times over. From day one of his career, the man seems driven to obliterate the traditional jazz chart as we know it. With a boss as cool as that, how could he not rub off on you? Ellman beats his critics to the punch in Radiate‘s liner notes by expressing his gratitude this way: “Thanks to Henry Threadgill for being a well of inspiration.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the Zooid sound itself, it’s as difficult to take in as it is to describe. Many of the instruments sound like they are operating independently. Tuba and trombone rarely rely on pedal tones and the drummer never just gives a straight away beat. The lead instrument, sometimes sax and sometimes guitar, will play a sharply articulated melody that seems keen on its very own mode of scale. Put it all together and you get some pretty far-out results. Many of these traits are on display with “Supercell”. Jose Davila makes his tuba bounce up, down, and all around as trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and alto saxophonist/fellow Pi recording artist Steve Lehman peck their way over the top. In between is Ellman, splaying out weird arpeggios that are maybe one step removed from his regular day job. Drummer Damion Reid puts his focus into the heavy syncopation that somehow guides the piece. Bassist Stephan Crump knows where to go and what to do in all of this, and I certainly think that’s saying a lot. Just a little bit past “Supercell”‘s halfway point, everyone begins to align on a rhythmic pattern that goes from one note to a mere pair of notes. This is how Finlayson and Davila toss coal into the oven, allowing Lehman to take over. Is this a lapse into the ancient jazz art of vamping behind someone else’s solo?

Forget about it. Ellman and the band are back to over-the-shoulder gestures on “Rhinocerisms”. The beat feels lost in the rhythm, Lehman provides the vamp, and Jose Davila begins the song with a trombone lead. When Finlayson lines up with Lehman, the group is scooping from that sweet Threadgill well again. “A Motive”, “Vibrograph”, and “Enigmatic Runner” are overflowing with hard attacks that are woven deeply into the ensemble’s sound. With songs like these, showboating isn’t necessary. “Enigmatic Runner” itself is able to halt on a dime, making it an effective album closer.

Two tracks are set aside for impressionistic mood-setting. “Furthermore” is the denser of the two and more prone to post hard-bop fury. “Moment Twice” represents the other side of the coin by spinning gentle guitar with simmering drums in less than two minutes. Taken together, they help give Radiate a well-rounded feeling. It’s hard to believe that this is only Liberty Ellman’s fourth album, but he has come a long, long way since 1998’s Orthodoxy. Hopefully he can nurture this solo career of his a little more frequently from now on, because further development of the formula could be sweeter than the well from which it came.

RATING 7 / 10
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.