Space Messengers is not Wolfgang Schalk’s attempt to explore free-song structures, but his quartet often approaches time in a manner that implies pulse instead of hammering a solid tempo. The guitarist plays with warm, languid tone, but peels off quick licks that avoid predictability. Bassist Andy McKee and drummer Ian Froman, who filled out the quartet with pianist Dave Kikoski on Schalk’s 2002 album Rainbows in the Night, act as key elements in the album’s overall success in the way they open up the music while keeping things on solid ground.
The melody of “The Bell Song,” for instance, stretches itself over barlines and rhythms, with Schalk and Kikoski finishing each other’s thoughts. As the soloists take their positions, the rhythm has gone through elastic transitions—speeding up and slowing down while the melody remains in one tempo—that recall the flexibility of the 1960s Miles Davis Quintet. Schalk locks into a midrange groove during his solo that again plays with time. “Hi There,” which could be called a blues variation since it toys with 12 and 16-bar formats, is marked by some fast octave leaps in the theme before it settles into a slow, steady swing, with some insightful solos from Schalk and Kikoski.