A great guitarist steps to the forefront
Liberty Ellman is one of the most distinctive guitarists in jazz, but he has mostly employed his unique sound in the service of other bands. He has played with Vijay Iyer, Joe Lovano, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Myra Melford, Greg Osby, Wadada Leo Smith and Somi; also, the guitarist is Henry Threadgill’s right-hand man in his band Zooid. In addition, he has become an in-demand mixing engineer, working on projects by Steve Coleman, Gregory Porter, Tyshawn Sorey and several others. Mr. Ellman’s stunning recent recording “Radiate” (Pi Recordings) is his first as a leader in nine years, and on Thursday, he will perform at Cornelia Street Cafe in New York.
“Radiate” features a formidable collection of leading young voices in jazz. Mr. Ellman leads a sextet with saxophonist Steve Lehman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, tubaist and trombonist Jose Davila, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Damion Reid. His compositions bear some trademarks of Mr. Threadgill and his other employers, but the music is eclectic and unique. Lots of new jazz recordings reflect or comment on the genre’s glorious past, but “Radiate” feels very much of its moment.
Mr. Ellman’s eight compositions on “Radiate” bristle with energy and innovation. There are a handful of contemporary jazz bands that use a tuba as a timekeeper, but very few that use both tuba and bass. This results in rhythms that are nimble yet firm as Messrs. Davila, Crump and Reid play off of one another’s lines. The solos from the horns are pithy and concise. Mr. Lehman has a pungent, gritty tone that contrasts nicely with Mr. Finlayson’s lean, elegant tones. Mr. Ellman’s solos have a clean, fluid sound and his lithe lines almost dance between the complex rhythms and unique harmonies. The instrumentation results in an unusual sound, but Mr. Ellman’s music offers tensions and resolutions that any avid music fan will find familiar.
The recording’s first track, “Supercell,” begins with a catchy unaccompanied tuba line. Then the other instruments enter, yielding a complex weave that is clarified by Mr. Ellman’s solo, highlighted by tight rhythmic figures. It is followed by a potent saxophone feature from Mr. Lehman. “Furthermore” is a softer, more relaxed piece that illustrates the gorgeous textures that this band is capable of producing. “Rhinocerisms” is the centerpiece of the recording, a winding midtempo piece that features Mr. Ellman’s most compelling solo, fleet at times yet slowing to a wonderful counterpoint with Mr. Reid. This duo also stands out on the album’s final track, the percussive “Enigmatic Runner.”
Mr. Ellman, who is 44, was born in London and grew up in New York and Northern California. He got his start professionally in the Bay Area scene, where he played with Messrs. Iyer and Mahanthappa as well as the rap groups the Coup and Midnight Voices. Via those experiences he became involved with the M-Base Collective, a crew of jazz musicians who devised innovative rhythms and harmonies. He moved back to New York in 1998 and recorded twice as a leader, on “Tactiles” (Pi, 2003) and “Ophiuchus Butterfly” (Pi, 2006), before his other activities began to dominate his agenda.
For most of this century, jazz has been led by piano players, and it’s not hard to hear why. They function as a chordal or a rhythmic instrument with equal ease. In the past few years guitarists have moved to the forefront, offering the same versatility. With this recording, Mr. Ellman solidifies his place alongside Mary Halvorson, Rez Abbasi, Lage Lund, Ben Monder, Jeff Parker, Steve Cardenas, Charlie Hunter and Brandon Ross—guitarists who are defining post-millennial jazz. Now if only they had a hashtag for their sound.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.