The prolific Irish guitarist Mark O'Leary likes to position himself in challenging musical outfits, usually trios, that discourage facile characterizations and expectations. The two trios featured on Ellipses and Signs highlight his avant-fusion approach. O'Leary says he's influenced by diverse sources ranging from avant-garde modern composers like Karl Heinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis to forward thinking sound sculptors like David Torn and Fennesz. But even if you can locate where his musical ideas stem from, it is always a surprise to follow their transformations into bold finished statements.
This trio brings O'Leary together with Norwegian keyboard wizard Stole Storlokken, a member of free-improv quartet Supersilent and fusion outfit Elephant9, and Chicagoan drummer John Herndon, a member of Ken Vandermark's Powerhouse Sound and Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra, who has collaborated before with O'Leary on Radio Free Europe (Leo Records, 2007). This undated recording pays its dues to the effects-laden brew of fusion and progressive rock of the 1970s. Storlokken's vintage synth walls merge with O'Leary's flat-toned guitar and electronics, and Herndon's fractured grooves, to form intense and often dark textures that sound influenced by Terje Rypdal's and Steve Hillage's atmospheric guitar heroics of that era, especially on the title track and on the free-form "Maskerade."
The last and longest piece, "Theme from Jack Johnson," is a tribute to the famous Miles Davis composition from the trumpeter's 1970s funky electric-fusion outings. But like the former pieces, all credited to all three players, it does not attempt to reconstruct that decade's sound or to follow the genre, but instead to use it as a springboard for an adventurous improvised meeting. The outcome is epic and captivating. The trio produce their own trademark sound, and an impressive camaraderie that charges the music with intensity, surprise and uncompromised determination to explore new terrains.
The trio with West Coast 6-string electric contrabass player Steuart Leibig and drummer Alex Cline is also rooted in 1970s fusion, but this Californian session from October, 2003 is much more jazz-oriented and all the pieces are composed by O'Leary. Unlike the improvised collective session Ellipses, this one highlights O'Leary's distinctive guitar sound and his role as a leader, while Leibig and Cline supply him with an elastic and solid base for his solos. And if Ellipses suggests sound that paid its dues to Terje Rypdal, this session offers influences from 1970s releases by other ECM guitarists like Bill Connors, David Torn and the young Pat Metheny.
O'Leary alternates between searching and free-flowing solos, as on the opening piece "Tilt," to more dreamy and meditative soundscapes, as on "Falling," "Want to Know a Secret" and the eerie closing piece "Headphase," to blazing and dense eruptions, as on the brief "Skrakk" and "Bye for a While". The title piece features the trio at its best, with all three contributing equally to the close and slow burning interplay. The disc presents O'Leary as an imaginative musician who is developing a unique voice.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Ellipses; Maskerade; Theme from Jack Johnson.
Personnel: Mark O'Leary: guitar, electronics; John Herndon: drums; Stole Storlokken: synths, samples.
Tracks: Tilt; Falling; Skrakk; Signs; Want To Know A Secret; Bye For A While; Headphase.
Personnel: Mark O'Leary: guitar; Steuart Leibig: 6-string electric bass; Alex Cline: drums, percussion.