Bill McHenry: Ghosts of the Sun

Tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry’s music is lovely without being precious, free without being unorganized, sophisticated without being pretentious, thoughtful without being calculating. His latest album, Ghosts of the Sun, appears to be a sequel to his outstanding 2007 disc, Roses, with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Reid Anderson and the late drummer Paul Motian. In fact, the tracks for Ghosts of the Sun come from that same December 2006 recording session. Yet these are no cutting-room-floor castoffs; they’re every bit as good as the ones that made it into the first record.

The charts for these nine tunes must have been nothing more than wispy sketches. The melodies and chord changes matter far less than the interplay among the four musicians. This quartet is as empathetic as any in jazz, and it has to be, because there are no meaty rhythms, grooves or thick chords to hide behind. Tunes like “Ms. Polley,” “Anti Heroes” and “Ghosts of the Sun” sit on the most fragile foundations, with only faint themes holding them in place. McHenry blows minimalist phrases and leaves lots of empty spaces. Motian’s role, as usual, is not one of rhythm keeper; he is just as much an improviser as the other guys. Bonder and Anderson purposefully fade into the background, because everyone involved knows this session is not about showing off or turning in mind-bending solos.

Ghosts of the Sun is a restrained, impressionistic work of art. Even when McHenry blows rapid staccato notes (on “La Fuerza”) and Monder starts to shred, Nels Cline-style, (on “William III”), it’s done in a non-threatening manner. The quartet’s ethos is perhaps best displayed on “Lost Song,” a beautiful ballad with a wistful melody and understated playing by all.