For the first 28 seconds of Last Desert, all we hear is Liberty Ellman’s guitar, stating the principal theme to “The Sip” as bassist Stephan Crump provides a lean underpinning. And that is the last time Ellman, as a player, dominates Last Desert. It’s not like he doesn’t solo after this, but for the bulk of the album’s 45 minutes, Ellman plays as an equal part of the ensemble. What makes this album his is the writing, and the way it shepherds six individual voices into a coherent-yet-cohesive ensemble.
Last Desert stems from a commission by Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works program, and as such, has something of a “new music” feel to it. For one thing, the ensemble is almost eccentrically diverse, balancing the guitar/bass/drums rhythm section with a fairly singular trumpet/alto sax/tuba horn section. Nor does Ellman hew to the traditional jazz demarcation between rhythmic and melodic roles, as Crump’s arco lines and his own single-note leads regularly intermingle with the horns, while Damion Reid’s drumming often has less to do with keeping time than with reinforcing the ensemble’s counterpoint.
But even though some passages are clearly composed, others blur the line between written and improvised ensemble work, so that the music seems forever in flux between Ellman’s intentions and the voices of his ensemble. Last Desert sounds like no one else’s work. Steve Lehman’s alto is, as ever, nimble and expressive, and the way he moves from clean tone to impassioned shrieking on “Last Desert II” is truly impressive, while Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet is the epitome of modern brass cool. But it’s tubist Jose Davila who impresses most, not through his upper-register gymnastics but because he makes such expressive use of the instrument’s low end, offering pedal tones that put him below even Crump’s reach.