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Tactiles by Liberty Ellman

In the early years of the twentieth century, European Art Music began to move away from the use of tonality, leaving behind the bulk of its audience in its process. At this point, it was left to jazz musicians to take up tonal music, enlivening it through increased rhythmic interest and the spontaneity of improvisation. After a century of development the genre has reached a high level of sophistication, at which point it is merging with streams of contemporary European Art Music flowing back into the tonal mainstream, along with other influences from a range of World Music traditions. Musicians in this field are faced with the challenge of absorbing these influences and re-injecting them into the musical melting-pot through the extemporaneous stream-of-consciousness mode of performance that lies at the heart of jazz, or by integrating improvisational elements into the process of composition. Guitarist Liberty Ellman is working at the heart of this process, adding his unique set of influences-he grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix, who was a friend of his mother, for example. Since then he has discovered Grant Green, Thelonius Monk and Bela Bartok, among others. Now he is working to integrate all of this into his own voice as a performer and a composer. Eavesdropping on this process is a delight reserved for educated jazz fans. It takes some work, but there are many rewards.

Originally from London, Ellman moved to New York at an early age, then spent several years in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he worked with such artists as Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman. He then returned to New York, where he has been developing his own groups, while working with like-minded performers such as Henry Threadgill and Greg Osby, who is heard on three tracks of this album. As a guitarist, Ellman moves beyond bebop while retaining the distinct sensibility that lies at the heart of jazz, but manages to avoid the temptation to join what Gary Giddins calls the "note-happy virtuosos and techno-geek fusioneers." At the same time, this is no Smooth-Jazz commercial pap. The players dig into Ellman's slightly quirky compositions and produce a stream of melodic invention over the constantly shifting pulse provided by Crump and Harland to produce music remarkably free of cliché, with a rich, dark sound that tends to emphasize the lower registers of both guitar and tenor saxophone. The music is abstract, but direct and visceral.

If this music does not fall into familiar categories, it also resists familiar patterns. It is not organized in simple eight or sixteen measure sections, over familiar, pop-song derived harmonic sequences. It is music that requires, and actually rewards, repeated listening, after which it can suddenly appear luminously simple, and indeed, the motifs that Ellman selects as the basis for improvisation are simple enough, but pregnant with possibilities--exactly the role of successful jazz compositions. While not expressly intended as such, the nine pieces work together as a continuous suite, unfolding abstract themes, while avoiding some of the uglier sounds sometimes favored by contemporary players, and while the general soundscape owes a good deal to Ornette Coleman, the syntax comes more directly from post-bop. Shim, for example, reminds me of Rollins at times but then slips more into the role of the Everyman of the tenor, echoing all the great players that preceded him but no one in particular. Similarly, Ellman has absorbed the history of jazz guitar with a couple of rock players thrown in.

It is a sad fact of contemporary music education that no curriculum exists that is designed to help students master the various techniques required to move into this genre. So musicians such as Ellman have to identify and absorb what they need from independent study, from theory texts, recordings, and from studying and working with an older generation of musicians such as, in Ellman's case, artists such as Threadgill. If he can continue this process of development as both performer and composer, then I look forward to subsequent recordings with great anticipation.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Liberty Ellman
  • CD Title: Tactiles
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Pi Recordings
  • Tracks: Excavation, Clean Is reach, Temporary Aid, Helios, Rare Birds, Body Art, How Many Texts, Ultraviolet, Post Approval
  • Musicians: Liberty Ellman (guitar), Greg Osby (alto saxophone) [3, 7 & 8], Mark Shim - tenor saxophone, Stephen Crump (acoustic bass), Eric Harland (drums)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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