When last we had heard from him, Liberty Ellman was charming the pants off of discerning listeners. He could write clever, oblong compositions full of overlapping rhythms; he favored Steve Coleman’s sophisticated funk and classic bebop equally; and his hollow-body electric guitar sounded terrific alongside Mark Shim’s saxophone. For that side of Ellman, consult the guitarist’s Tactiles recording. With Ophiuchus Butterfly, the emphasis has shifted.
Ellman still likes his funk and bop, but he’s now thinking in bigger structures, more complicated voicings and in textures. So naturally, the ensemble has gotten bigger. Shim returns, though now he shares the front line with another saxophonist, Steve Lehman. The bottom end also bulks up with tuba player Jose Davila alongside bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Ellman takes full advantage of the extra players with constantly shifting unison passages and counterpoint, not just in the front-line horns but with tuba and bass as well. Some tunes aim for pure texture. On others, Ellman creates a multifaceted gyroscope of an ensemble sound, which resembles the music of Henry Threadgill (a former Ellman employer). Ellman’s playing takes a back seat to his compositional ambitions, however. He takes a few solos, but his guitar is the least prominent voice.