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Mark O'Leary: Levitation

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Mark O'Leary may not be the best-known guitarist around—it's perhaps a little harder to get attention when you're based in Cork, Ireland. But what O'Leary lacks in public profile is more than made up for by his immense talent and originality. Levitation is one of four sessions recorded on his own dime over the course of this decade that have been released in 2005 on Leo Records. Taken as a whole, the four albums (Chamber Trio, Self-Luminous, Closure and Levitation, all trio sets in which O'Leary works with such heavyweights as Mat Maneri, Uri Caine, Matthew Shipp, and Ben Perowsky) have a staggering and somewhat terrifying impact: who is this guy? How could these records have not been immediately released? O'Leary's an electric guitarist of remarkable finesse (and just as importantly, iron focus and concentration) whose recorded work dances on a featherweight balance between memorable composition and fearless improvisation—improvisation that seems to simultaneously abandon and somehow remain true to that composition.

Levitation is a session from late 2000 in which O'Leary is joined by trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and drummer Billy Hart. The three players are at an utterly equivalent level of ability and commitment; while there's plenty of guitar, drums, and trumpet, Levitation is ultimately the sound of listening—no recent recording gives a more palpable impression of alert, balanced attentiveness.

O'Leary's composition "Red Sand is a short gem of coiled beauty and thematic integrity that begins with a slow, almost-unison theme (O'Leary and Stanko articulating the notes individually, not slavishly) that gives an impression of slow, coalescing awakening. There's some gorgeous Stanko trumpet over O'Leary's volume swells as Hart's painterly drums suggest rather than dictate pulse and tempo. The slightly longer "Oblique has another insinuating theme that gives way to the three players all soloing simultaneously (O'Leary's guitar lines possessing an almost terrifyingly taut power). This can be the riskiest of strategies, as the polyphony has to the potential to be boringly cautious or meaninglessly anarchic. Here it's triumphant: the listener is free to fasten his attention to any one part—say, O'Brien's guitar clusters, or Stanko's searing lines, or Hart's autonomous cymbals—or to fuse the discrete voices together as a whole.

Stanko's the famous name here, but neither O'Leary nor Hart give an inch in this session and the result is some of Stanko's most engaged—even biting—playing in recent years. Certainly, the mysterious, shadowy theme of O'Leary's "Astrakhan seems tailormade for Stanko's so-European urbanity, and his trumpet solo here—played alongside O'Leary's skewed bluesisms—is deeply emotional and engaged. Hart is wildly impressive everywhere—yet his so-subtle, pillowing cymbals that close out "Mystic are particularly worthy of mention.

One cannot fail to mention the shorter, group-composed improvisations like "Amnesiak, "Rite, and "A Walk in the Park With, which feel like inverted encapsulations of the longer pieces and provide a sort of breathing space in an album that might otherwise seem too lengthy.

Levitation is an altogether successful recording from an artist whose time has come—viva O'Leary!

Track Listing: Red Sand; Oblique; Mystic; Levitation; P.M.; A Theme I Used to Play; Giya; Astrakhan; Amnesiak; A Walk in the Park With; Rite; Warm; Getting There; Phase.

Personnel: Mark O'Leary: guitar; Tomasz Stanko: trumpet; Billy Hart: drums.

Title: Levitation | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Leo Records

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