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Axiom by John O'Gallagher

Musicians are rarely students of physics, and vice versa I would imagine, as the mechanics of science and of soul are hardly ever considered in the same thought. This is a bit strange, however, if one keeps in mind the fact that acoustics, after all, are a part of physics - all those bass drum bombs and flatted fifths wending their way along the laid-down laws whether one takes the time to learn them or not. John O’Gallagher, a New York-based altoist in his late thirties, has made a startling, mature attempt to address this scientific puzzle that lays behind the mystique of music on his proper debut as a leader, Axiom. Now, this is not to say that the results come off as studied, cold, or contrived. If there are hypotheses hidden herein, then that element of preconception is softened by the surprise achieved in their passionate working out. Indeed, O’Gallagher’s dedication to the concepts of dynamics and development does not exist as a finished product, but serves as a searing, captivating means to arrive at a vibrant musical end.

O’Gallagher’s thoughtfulness is perhaps the most striking attribute of his emergence here: the way "Hydraulics" moves at a furious pace, the dual pistons of O’Gallagher and Tony Malaby pumping with abandon in quick up-and-down exchanges; how the theme of "Homunculus" adds and integrates one successively longer phrase on top of another like the Fibonnaci numbers it is based on; the haunting, spacious circling of all four instruments on "Gravity," recalling the epic planetary sequences of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001; even "Plain Air’s" insistence on referring back to single, repeated notes, offering a sense of variety within unity. (Not to mention Malaby’s repeated evocation of Anthony Braxton’s more mathematical melodies, which are always named with unpronounceable, physics-like diagrams.) These winking nods to the world of physics, then, are more than a superficial conceit hastily considered and thoughtlessly assembled. Rather, this sense of the solidarity between scientific method and musical expression is essential to understanding the altoist’s vision. Namely because in order to communicate, to commit oneself to structured (and therefore meaningful) dialogue, one must first understand momentum, dynamics, the delicate balance of actions and their appropriate reactions - in short, the laws that govern the physical world.

This maturity on O’Gallagher’s part has a lot to do with his success here, and why one hopes we will be hearing considerably more from this group in the future. Its "style," more often than not, recalls something of the historic Atlantic quartet of Ornette Coleman: the bluesy, careening, halfway-unison horn statements, the almost liquid rhythmic hydraulics of bassist John Hebert, the snappy, step-to-it propulsion of drummer Jeff Williams. But it is also a more intense, visceral approach than Coleman cared for; the improvisations - while build on melodic fragments seemingly without regard to harmonic strictures - often dovetail from an aching, bent quality to collective pyrotechnics in the span of a minute or two. For all the controversy over Ornette’s early recordings, in retrospect they display a startling bent for sentimentality and traditional cadences in the melodies. With O’Gallagher and company, this quality is kept (like in the gorgeous opening of "Golden Ruby" or the heartfelt half-sigh swells of "Things Have Changed"), but it is hardened with a more explicit rhythmic force, attracting rests in order to more creatively scatter them seconds later.

O’Gallagher, then, seems to be saying that this is the meeting point between science and sound - that ever-elusive point where beauty is bantered about by laws that sometimes conceal and sometimes reveal; the variables that exist at the heart of hypothesis. An axiom is a statement that cannot be proven but is undeniably true; O’Gallagher has succeeded in bringing to bear on the science of acoustics a similar satisfying bravado, stating with economy and force his fascinating version of these truths. A thoughtful, unpretentious piece of work, that mines the depths while delivering steady surface riches.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: John O'Gallagher
  • CD Title: Axiom
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: CIMP
  • Rating: Five Stars
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