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Expansions: The Dave Liebman Group: The Puzzle

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It takes no time at all for the five members of Expansions to demonstrate the impressive altitude of their collective musicianship. Right at the start of this album’s opening track, alto saxophonist Matt Vashlishan’s “Hat Trick,” three related melodic lines, played respectively by the saxophones (Liebman on soprano, along with the composer), piano (Bobby Avey) and bass (Tony Marino), dodge and bounce off each other in close, often clashing harmony. “The melodic order and material from Messiaen’s 5th mode of limited transposition was selected from a hat at random,” Vashlishan explains in the liner notes. Sounds questionable as described, but as heard it’s instantly attention-grabbing.

Melodically, harmonically and rhythmically, “Hat Trick” and the 10 tracks that follow it score high on the complexity scale, but listening to them is a pleasure rather than a chore, much like … well, piecing together a good jigsaw puzzle. Liebman’s wistful solo on his own “Vendetta” is a standout, almost more of a probing conversation with Avey than a separate statement. The whole group gets in on the chatter during a woozy rendition of Tadd Dameron and Count Basie’s “Good Bait,” playing over and around each other like a polytonal Dixieland band.

An overall sense of playfulness is strong in every composition here, but the going does get darker as the program continues. For Avey’s “Continues to Ignore,” inspired by the music of Haiti, Liebman and Vashlishan break out recorders and flutes, creating a profoundly spooky atmosphere. And the closing “Danse de la Fureur,” taken from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (yes, him again), is all pile-driving riffs in crazy time signatures, summoning up shades of Mahavishnu and giving the album a forceful sendoff.

Originally Published