Like his previous release, Abacus, alto saxophonist John O'Gallagher pursues a cerebral blend of free exploration over a foundation of structured composition on Line of Sight, his second recording with his group Axiom. O'Gallagher and his quartet tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist John Hebert and drummer Jeff Williams navigate their way through charts that may impose strict form, but still manage to sound loose and unforced.
With a two-saxophone line-up and no chordal instrument on board, O'Gallagher relies on harmonies implicit and explicit, through the contrapuntal interweaving of the horns and bass. O'Gallagher has cited fellow alto player Steve Coleman as a significant influence. "If there was one person who has found new territory in modern jazz, it's been him...his harmonic vocabulary and melodic vocabulary definitely derive from all the things that I'm interested in as far as Bartok, and modern conceptions about harmony and gravity of pitches and things. But while Coleman can sometimes appear a tad mathematical, and O'Gallagher's strong inner logic in combining advanced rhythmic and harmonic ideas is unassailable, O'Gallagher's compositions seem to breathe more. As clearly considered as they are, they retain a vivid sense of adventure.
That's not to say O'Gallagher's melodic conception is easy or obvious, but as abstruse as he can sometimes be, he's also capable of a rare and unusual lyricism. "Cascade and "Leona both feature graceful intertwining of alto and tenor, with the former revolving around a challenging rhythmic concept, and the latter a delicate rubato piece where everyone seems magically attuned to O'Gallagher's lead. And "Effluence features something of an O'Gallagher signature, where the two horns and bass play the initial theme seemingly a note apart, creating an oddly unbalanced feeling.
With an almost classical rigour when it comes to Hebert and Williams maintaining the largely odd-metered pieces, there's still plenty of room for interpretation within its more rigid confines. Pieces are largely centred on rhythmic patterns that demand certain emphases and pulses. But while the rhythm section's role is more stringent, O'Gallagher leaves both Hebert and Williams opportunities for greater freedom, with Williams delivering a strong melodic solo on the graceful "Cubist, and Hebert's solo on the equally elegant "Effluence being the height of understatement.
As challenging as O'Gallagher's music is, there's an underlying subtle expressiveness that makes even the most oblique of compositions easy to absorb. And while music like O'Gallagher's risks being almost too intellectual, with compelling soloists like Malaby and O'Gallagher both players who have been gaining ever stronger reputations as improvisers with broad reaches there's plenty of emotional depth as well
Line of Sight continues to develop O'Gallagher's unique compositional vision, one that combines heady melodic ideas, oddly-constructed rhythms and unfettered improvisation into a precise whole that reveals more with each listen.
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