July/August 2004

John O'Gallagher

John O'Gallagher has a thing for mathematics. If the title of the alto saxophonist's new disc, Abacus (Arabesque), doesn't clue you in, talk to him about some of his inspirations. He'll get all Brainiac-like on you, citing such heady material as the "golden numbers" of 13th-century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci and Douglas R. Hofstadter's Pulitzer Prize-winning Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid as significant touchstones. "I'm interested in a lot of things that have to do with structure," O'Gallagher says. "I'll go on the Web and search for things on fractals, because you can find a lot of interesting things on how nature is based upon fractal geometry."

"String Theory" derives its harmonic structure from Fibonacci's work, but it comes to life through O'Gallagher's alto sax coiling tightly with Ben Monder's golden guitar tones and the rhythm section of pianist Russ Lossing, drummer Jeff Hirshfield and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller. O'Gallagher applied Fibonacci's numbers on the vigorous "Homunculus" from his 2002 debut, Axiom (CIMP), which had him sharing the frontline with tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby with the rhythm section of drummer Jeff Williams and bassist John Hebert. "Mathematics is something I've dabbled in a bit as far as composing. But believe me, I know very superficially about the real workings of this stuff," O'Gallagher says with a wry laugh.

The saxophonist's diamond-hard tone and corkscrew improvisations sometimes recall Greg Osby, but O'Gallagher also reveals himself to be quite a sensualist on Abacus' spectral "For You," where he etches out beautiful, elongated melody lines alongside Monder's elastic chords. And there's a certain jovial mischievousness that shines through the riveting makeover of Lee Konitz's "Hi Beck." "I think Lee's one of the most underrated brilliant guys out there," O'Gallagher says. "I've always thought of his music as being ultramodern."

In addition to Konitz, O'Gallagher lists Thelonious Monk, Steve Coleman, Lennie Tristano and Gyorgy Ligeti among his favorite composers. "What draws me in are compositions that have a real inner logic in which every note has a meaning," he says. As far as his own compositions, O'Gallagher usually thinks visually, and lately in terms of series as Picasso once did with his paintings. "Sometimes when I compose, I think, 'Man, I can write a million versions of this one idea.'"

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