Liberty Ellman in New York
Fresh off the road with Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, guitarist Liberty Ellman kicked off a three-night showcase of bands affiliated with the Pi Recordings label. (Rudresh Mahanthappa’s quartet and Vijay Iyer’s Fieldwork completed the slate.) This was the premiere of a new lineup for Ellman, an expansion of the quartet concept he explored so compellingly on last year’s Tactiles. Besides Ellman himself, two members of the Tactiles group, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim and bassist Stephan Crump, were on hand. Gerald Cleaver played drums. Two additional players—Steve Lehman (alto sax) and Jose D’Avila (tuba/euphonium)—broadened the aural canvas immeasurably.
Drawing mostly on new work and two or three selections from Tactiles, Ellman wisely and whimsically took advantage of the expanded instrumentation. At times he split the ensemble into halves or various pairs, relying on the improvisational flow to catalyze the transitions. The parched dissonance and densely contrapuntal themes carried subtle reminders of Threadgill’s group (of which D’Avila is also a member), although Ellman—via Cleaver—endowed every piece with a more grounded, rock-solid rhythm. Shim and Lehman, both monster soloists, blended marvelously on the written passages, but describing them as the front line would be too simple. Ellman called upon all players to fulfill all roles, from melody to bass and many points between, including silence.
“Excavation” and “Rare Birds” were two of the Tactiles cuts reworked for sextet. Shim started the former with choppy three-note cells, soon to be offset by a counter-line of guitar, alto and tuba. Ellman blew with a fluid, soft-spoken assurance and attained a deep, woody tone in the low register. Occasionally his chording would soften the music’s angularity. But the set’s most riveting moments were the chordless ones—particularly when Shim or Lehman got going over a torrid bass and drum groove. Most of the pieces lacked titles, and now and then a shaky transition would alert one to the fresh ink being read on the bandstand. But if this was just the beginning for Ellman’s new sextet, “promising” puts it mildly.