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Liberty Ellman - Ophiuchus Butterfly

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Artist: Liberty Ellman

Album: Ophiuchus Butterfly

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Aug. 13, 2006

This record is a wonderful surprise. I’ve long enjoyed guitarist Liberty Ellman’s playing, having heard him both in the great Henry Threadgill’s ensembles and on his own recording Tactiles (which seem filled with promise not quite realized). A fluid, clean-toned player with a very advanced rhythmic concept and an ear for synthesizing improbable idiomatic combinations, Ellman proves on this disc that he can flat out write.

His unpredictable, ever-wending guitar lines form the root of these pieces; but they all bounce and shuffle and swing and funk, sitting at the intersection of Threadgill, Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, and – yes – Warne Marsh. He’s joined here by an exceptional band, with saxophonists Mark Shim and Steve Lehman, tuba freakazoid Jose Davila, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Gerald Cleaver. The two saxophonists place an intriguing stylistic contrast (roughly between Shorter-like reserve and Braxton’s antic angularity) front and center, with the separate axes of Crump/Cleaver’s turn-on-a-dime and Ellman/Davila’s serpentine linearity pulling in their own directions. The compositions are all about the reconciliation of these momentums, not so much finding a common denominator as housing them in elaborate rhythmic structures that still possess ice sculpture brilliance. Hear this most notably in the disc’s title track, whose Very Very Circus oomph is buoyed by some serious funk.

Much of the music indeed has more bounce to the ounce like this, but it’s neither slick nor one-dimensional. For example, on “You Have Ears” the quirky-jerk arrangement of disparate lines and rhythms is both immediate and brain-teasing (with Lehman and Shim’s blue flames crossing back and forth). On the coiled funk of “Tarmacadam,” Ellman’s out-of-time runs are both slyly subversive and marvelously apposite. But this is a far richer album than some mere collection of grooves. Consider the ominous electric clouds of “Snow Lips” or “Borealis,” the aching ballad “Aestivation” (with an insanely expressive Lehman solo), or the slinky noir “Chromos,” whose counterlines and held tones are perhaps the disc’s strongest moment.

It’s a fully realized statement by a wonderful improviser, composer, and bandleader. A sure sign of improvised music’s vitality and passion, this disc is a lock for year-end “Best of” lists.

By Jason Bivins

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