For starters, Ophiuchus is a constellation, a group of stars. In titling his new record, perhaps Liberty Ellman wanted to make a subtle reference to his all-star band. A more on-target reference would be his own rising star: Ellman is probably the most talked about jazz guitarist since Kurt Rosenwinkel held the title a few years ago. His new CD will be talked about, though what people will say is uncertain, as this music seems to teeter on the imaginary fence that separates traditional jazz from experimental music.
The session opens with a choppy groove-driven piece - the title track - that is strongly reminiscent of Henry Threadgill. The odd, alternating meters and syncopated short notes scattered with seeming randomness (like stars) will frustrate jazzers who need to tap their feet to the tune, but delight those who crave eccentric rhythms. This leads into a pair of contemplative pieces that trade in meter for ambient chords and drones. When the groove returns it's in the form of a pair of jagged little numbers that are also redolent of Threadgill. Later on there's a mid-tempo piece, the infectious "Tarmacadam , that is not only less Threadgillesque but the most fun in the session.
Ellman's playing is unflashy and mostly unadorned by any effects. The supporting band is fine indeed, with the superb drummer Gerald Cleaver and underappreciated tubist Jose Davila as standouts. Ellman is an earnest and dedicated craftsman who seems bent on doing something important. The more he stretches out and away from the influence of his mentors, the better his chances. Ophiuchus Butterfly is not quite that major, earth shattering statement, but it's a strong enough stab at it and hints at possibilities to come from this adventurous young artist.
Once in a while something comes along that seems to answer at least partially the boring, stupid question that keeps getting asked in various forms: Where is jazz going? What does jazz even mean any more? Who's making relevant jazz now? Etc. The astonishing Two Hours, from a young, European guitarist, of all people, has all the elements jazz lovers in search of worthy new projects should be seeking.
Salamon certainly can pick a band. Sidemen don't come much, if any better than Tony Malaby, Mark Helias and Tom Rainey. If Salamon sounds a bit starstruck in the liner notes his guitar work betrays no such thing. All the playing is virtuosic: flawless in the pocket and impishly brilliant out of it. Salamon could improve in one small way: his solos should swing more loosely, the way the tunes do, but otherwise he's set himself up at one stroke as a new jazz guitarist to be dealt with.
Salamon's tunes are satisfyingly well-structured with strong melodies, but the record's looseness and spontaneity (hinted at in the title, which refers to the amount of time Salamon claims the session required) is the real marvel. A paucity of rehearsal and recording time have resulted in a very special recording that will help keep jazz' obituary from being written just a bit longer.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Ophiuchus Butterfly; Aestivation; Snow Lips; You Have Ears; The Naturalists; Pretty Words, Like Blades; Tarmacadam; Looking Up; Chromos; Borealis.
Personnel: Liberty Ellman: guitar, synthesizer, sampler Steve Lehman: alto saxophone Mark Shim: tenor saxophone Jose Davila: tuba Stephan Crump: acoustic bass Gerald Cleaver: drums.
Tracks: Empty Heart; One for Steve Lacy; A Melody for Her; Does David Know He's Not Brown?; Where's The Bill?; Silence of the Poets; Mind Breezer; Blink; The Lonely Tune; Coffee With A Girl.
Personnel: Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Samo Salamon: guitar; Mark Helias: bass; Tom Rainey: drums.