Guitarist Liberty Ellman doesn't release many albums as a leader. Last Desert is only his fifth in more than twenty years, and fourth for Pi Recordings, following 2015's Radiate. But that doesn't mean he isn't a busy artist. He can be heard with JD Allen, Jason Robinson, Myra Melford's Snowy Egret, Stephan Crump's Rosetta Trio and, of course, Henry Threadgill's Zooid. He also produces music, mixes and masters recordings. Those last three crafts may explain why his recordings as a leader are few and far between. Everything must be just right. Needless to say, with Last Desert everything is just right.
Returning from Radiate are alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson , tuba player Jose Davila, bassist Stephan Crump, and drummer Damion Reid. This outing, clocking in at 45 minutes, has the character of an LP with side one taken up with the the gentle opener "The Sip" and the 15-minute program "Last Desert I" and "Last Desert II." Side two draws together different concepts and some advanced mathematics.
It is interesting how Ellman prefers to linger in the background of most of these compositions. He opens "The Sip" weaving a melody with Crump's bass, only to give way to Lehman and Finlayson's voices. The same is true for the pair of "Last Desert" pieces. Ellman delivers a granulated sound in support of the complex and knotty labyrinth of this performance. He relies on the deft technical skills of his band to achieve his ends. Both Finlayson and Lehman give surgical grade performances, and Davila's low end, Crump's expressive bass, and Reid's timing deliver a rare rainstorm in Ellman's desert.
The remaining four tracks (or side 2) have the brusque business funk of "Rubber Flowers" and the mechanized "Doppler." Both tracks imagine the musicians as a cyber-organism, delivering dense mechanistic music. By contrast "Portals" is a mostly pacific ballad which collects momentum and swings mightily at its conclusion. Ending with a 6-way conversation "Liquid," the sextet finds itself in a mellifluousness harmony.
The Sip; Last Desert I; Last Desert II; Rubber Flowers; Portals; Doppler; Liquid.
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