John O'Gallagher: Abacus (2003)
Watching an expert use an abacus, it is striking how random the movements appear to be, even though they are absolutely mathematically precise and ultimately yield an accurate result. Saxophonist John O'Gallagher's latest release is aptly titled Abacus , as the complexity of the material sometimes gives it an appearance of randomness; but it is clear that there is a highly developed inner logic at work, albeit one that might be a mystery on early listens.
Take the title track. Bassist Johannes Weidenmueller and drummer Jeff Hirshfield navigate complex elliptical rhythm patterns where the downbeat is all but completely subsumed. A good example of O'Gallagher's penchant for extended form, the track is a series of progressions over which O'Gallagher, guitarist Ben Monder and pianist Russ Lossing solo with seeming abandon. But at the end of the day all soloists operate at the nexus between freedom and composition. Monder is especially impressive, flurries of notes implying a lack of restraint that might be true if he weren't so able to periodically lock into the rhythm section's twisting form.
O'Gallagher's dry tone, rooted in Eric Dolphy, is surprisingly the least dominant solo voice of the set. He may be more interested, this time around, in promoting himself as a composer and bandleader as he gives the lion's share of the solo space to Monder and Lossing. Everyone plays with an advanced sense of harmony; the lines are abstruse and angular and verge, at times, on the free without ever quite losing site of the underlying form.
But the overall approach to the album is cerebral. Like the device of its title, there are elaborate processes at work. There are times where things run the risk of being too intellectual, but Weidenmueller and Hirshfield keep things rooted, although often in oblique ways. "Song," which is an arrangement of a Schoenberg piece, finds Hirshfield maintaining a pulse, but more in the context of layering textures. The rubato "Completeness" sees Weidenmueller's arco doubling O'Gallagher's loose theme before taking a pizzicato solo that is breathtaking in its subtlety.
"String Theory" has a unique conceit where O'Gallagher, Monder and Lossing each play the convoluted theme seemingly a note apart, creating a strangely unbalanced feeling. Lossing's solo builds into a whirlwind of hammered notes and lightening-fast runs before Monder takes over and builds his solo, starting with an almost mathematical motif that gradually develops, dramatic in its unresolved tension.
"For You" is the record's most overtly lyrical composition, a dreamlike piece with an ethereal theme from Monder and O'Gallagher; Weidenmueller delivers a solo that defines grace and elegance while O'Gallagher shows his tender side.
Abacus may ultimately be too smart for its own good. Still, with plenty to recommend in its blend of compositional precision and loose exploration, every member of this ensemble is worth watching; but Monder and Weidenmueller stand out in particular as players deserving wider recognition.
Track Listing: Abacus; Song; Passive Aggressive; Facing West; Completeness; String Theory; For You; Hi Beck; Facing East
Personnel: John O'Gallagher (alto saxophone), Ben Monder (guitar), Russ Lossing (piano), Johannes Weidenmueller (bass), Jeff Hirshfield (drums)