With his new CD, Tactiles (Pi), Liberty Ellman emerges as one of the most intriguing, albeit unorthodox, guitarists on the New York scene today. An album of original, esoteric compositions marked by dense polyrhythms, dissonant, angular lines and an organic logic that ties the whole thing together in brilliant fashion, Tactiles is a bold and compelling follow-up to Ellman's ambitious first outing, 1998's Orthodoxy (released on his own Red Giant label). With these two upstart offerings, along with his sideman work with such innovators as Greg Osby, Henry Threadgill and Butch Morris, Ellman has arrived at a place on the guitar that sidesteps six-string clichés.
"I always avoided spending too much time trying to sound like someone else," says the guitarist, who was born in London in 1971. "For me, it's been a process of going after what I think is successful about music, in general, that I respond to, and using those qualities to influence my own music and my own playing. For instance, I really like the way that rhythms can become a melodic element. I'm also attracted to music that has a really high emotional content. The way Threadgill puts it is it has to have ecstasy in it. It doesn't have to feel that way all the time but if it doesn't get to that point you never really can get fully captivated by it."
Another of Ellman's major compositional influences is Steve Coleman, whose adventurous rhythmic experiments in the M-Base collective swayed a generation of aspiring players during the late '80s and early '90s. "A bass player friend of mine turned me on to Steve's Black Science CD," Ellman says, "and I was really heavily drawn in because to me it was super-funky and it had all the elements that I really enjoyed in improvisation and jazz music. The harmonies were complicated but the rhythms were very seductive. And I was excited by the way that he was able to make the music feel modern and contemporary but have all of the best qualities of real jazz music, so it didn't sound like fusion to me as much as it did sound like a progression of the music. And I remember thinking, 'Here is the direction that music is going, as far as modern improvised creative music is concerned. It didn't stop after free jazz.'"
Ellman's investigation of Coleman's music soon led to other examples of extended improvisation over groove with odd time signatures, like Greg Osby's music, the Strata Institute's Cipher Syntax and Dave Holland's Extensions. "And to me it all just seemed like a natural fit," Ellman says. "So I began transcribing solos off of these records, learning how Steve and Greg and [guitarist] Dave Gilmore dealt with that music and figuring out what it was about, how those guys played that was different from what I had been learning off of the Pat Martino and Joe Pass records I had been checking out."
While the angular, odd-metered single-note figures of Ellman pieces from Tactiles, such as "Excavation" and "Helios," reveal an obvious M-Base influence, the guitarist's dramatic use of space and haunting lyricism on chordal ballads like "Temporary Aid" and "Rare Birds" suggest a Monkish influence. As Ellman explains, "It's probably somewhere between the way Monk plays chords and the way Andrew Hill kind of feels his way around chords, moving from one voicing to another with loose phrasing that expands and contracts the time. It's really fun to do, and when you have players who are comfortable with that it's really exciting because the time then becomes so elastic."
Ellman's playing combines the fleet-fingered, precisely picked approach of Pat Martino with more subversive forays into jangly dissonance that suggest James "Blood" Ulmer. His darkly hued tone is warm and alluring, his chordal approach while accompanying other soloists is shimmering and pianistic while his own linear tact is spiky, undulating and always unpredictable.
Meanwhile, the guitarist acknowledges that he has made an incremental leap in the five years between Orthodoxy and Tactiles. "There's a lot of change in the way that I play and the way that I can get a handle on the music, the way I can actually harness what it is in my head," he says. "I think I'm getting more efficient in translating those ideas now. So I have a lot of work to do for the next one."