John O'Gallagher: Abacus (2004)
The title of Abacus is at once direct and ironic, implied and stated. That's because the quintet on this record is a crew of serious, exacting musicians who know how to stick to form but also when to break it open like a nut. They play with precision but leave big gaps open to interpretation. They develop themes along shared lines, then break out other directions unexpectedly to find new territory. Such is the way of this intuitively connected group.
John O'Gallagher composed all the pieces and takes the chair as leader for this hour-long date, and while his science is imprinted on the way themes are stated and phrased, he's the least dominant voice on Abacus. That role goes to guitarist Ben Monder, who's in spectacular form, quite often ripping forward at an outrageous pace, but still able to pull back and swing softly. "String Theory" offers Monder a chance to put the pedal to the metal (not in the literal sense), and he obliges with probing, oblique phrases that take advantage of his outright virtuosity but do not depend on it for oomph. Too many guitarists are hung up on the idea that speed is power, so it's rare and refreshing to hear one who understands the importance of implication and harmonic depth.
He's matched in the depth department by pianist Russ Lossing, who combines a Monkish sense of off-kilter timing with a Tayloresque sense of dense, calculated harmony, though he too can play more openly when needed. The pianist understands when to step in and when to step out, though on balance he prefers to be in. The rhythm section here, comprised of bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and Jeff Hirshfield, plays as a unit and stays remarkably tight throughout the record. Check out the start-and-stop rhythms of the free improv piece "Facing West," the counterintuitive, almost funky backup on "Hi Beck," or the punchy pulse of the title track. Hirshfield is an uncannily precise drummer with a wide dynamic range and a reliable sense of when to hit hard and when to hit soft. Swing is often more implied than directly stated.
For the most part, these pieces are wide open, though themes can be tight and exacting. But even during those periods the group centers around the melody in a slanted, cooperative way that never becomes obvious or predictable. John O'Gallagher is more remarkable as a composer and a leader, though his playing too can be sharp as a knife and soft as butter. Abacus is a fine statement of the strengths of modern jazz, precise without straying too far over the line into cerebral abstraction, open-ended without becoming vague.
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Track Listing: 1. Abacus; 2. Song; 3. Passive Aggressive; 4. Facing West; 5. Completeness; 6. String Theory; 7. For You; 8. Hi Beck; 9. Facing East. Total Time 54:44. Recorded January 27, 2003.
Personnel: John O'Gallagher: alto saxophone; Ben Monder: guitar; Russ Lossing: piano; Johannes Weidenmueller: bass; Jeff Hirshfield: drums.