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Liberty Ellman: Ophiuchus Butterfly

Mark F. Turner By

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Being different just for the sake of being different is simply not enough. But then Liberty Ellman has never fit into the category of a run-of-the-mill jazz guitarist. Like a Bohemian artisan who dabbles in a variety of styles yet develops a unique identity, Ellman has performed impressively within mainstream, abstract jazz, and hip-hop settings—sometimes combining all three.

On the heals of the highly acclaimed Tactiles (Pi Recordings, 2003) comes the creative and exhilarating Ophiuchus Butterfly, which finds Ellman digging deeper into eccentric and progressive territories with a sextet of like-minded artists with distinct voices: Mark Shim (tenor sax) and Stephan Crump (bass), plus new members Gerald Cleaver (drums), Steve Lehman (alto sax) andJose Davila (tuba). Each of these players brings something refreshing to the table.

Though Ellman is known for serious chops and a unique playing style, this is not a guitar recording, but more of an outlet for his creative writing and sextet arrangements, which interpret ideas related to integrating jazz, urban beats, and electronica—all suggesting compositions juxtaposed with improvisation.

These concepts are found on the title piece, "Ophiuchus Butterfly," which is marked by jagged rhythms, circuitous horn arrangements and dynamic, free solos. The contrasts of tenor/alto sax, tuba/bass and drum/guitar are quite enjoyable. The idiosyncratic ballad "Aestivation accentuates the harmonies and timbres of each instrument, allowing each sound to develop like the unfolding of a flower's petals.

Other points of interest include the clever use of electronics, seamlessly threaded throughout the compositions and heavily featured on "Snow Lips and "Borealis. Heavy sampling, loops, and synthesized effects create surrealistic sound canvases that would easily fit into cinematic works. The majority of this music is very groove-centric. The blends of textures and technologies are skillfully balanced on the very stylish "Pretty Words, Like Blades," with repeating syncopation of chimes, bells, sax harmonies and rhythm section into a mesmeric beat.

Each musician senses and adds to the recording's vibe. Shim and Lehman, two of today's shrewdest young reed players, are again in cutting form with odd solos and harmonies. The tri-rhythm section of bassist Crumb, drummer Cleaver, and tubaist Davila provides attitude as well as rock-solid beats. On the infectious rhythm of "Tarmacadam, the tuba rumbles and grumbles; Ellman solos (with dual processed sounds) along with some fine drumming by Cleaver as the music sways and moves in head-bopping unison.

This challenging and totally cool recording is one of the more interesting and coherent releases of the year.

Track Listing: Ophiuchus Butterfly; Aestivation; Snow Lips; You Have Ears; The Natiralists; Pretty Words, Like Blades; Tarmacadam; Looking Up; Chromos; Borealis.

Personnel: Liberty Ellman: guitar, synthesizer; Steve Lehman: alto saxophone; Mark Shim: tenor saxophone; Jose Davila: tuba; Stephan Crump: acoustic bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums.

Title: Ophiuchus Butterfly | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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