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Liberty Ellman: Radiate

Dan Bilawsky By

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Guitarist Liberty Ellman works at the crossroads of intellectual inquisitiveness and rabid expressionism. That's been evident both in his own small but impressive discography and in his musical travels with Henry Threadgill's Zooid over the past fifteen years.

On Radiate—Ellman's first album in nine years, third on the Pi Recordings imprint—those two roads quickly meet. The album-opening "Supercell" proves to be a deep-grooving masterpiece that plays unification and disconnection against each other to create something magical. Damion Reid's drums and Jose Davila's tuba come together to create otherworldly, funky, and unpredictable grooves before Ellman and the remaining horns—alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson—burst in from all sides, muscling their way into the picture, joining forces, and finishing each other's sentences before Ellman takes the baton and runs with it. Everybody makes an impact here, both as individuals and as cogs in this most fascinating and uniquely rolling wheel. The follow-up track—"Furthermore"—is more of an exploratory venture, looser in shape, but no less absorbing. In those two pieces, Ellman's attention to detail and willingness to let go both come to the surface.

As the album moves on, Ellman continues to work with shapes and, on occasion, shapelessness. "Rhinocerisms" returns to the idea of interlocking and opposing forces, with Lehman and Ellman traveling together and apart while the bottom end of the band pushes and pulls against them; "Moment Twice" is a trio vignette that gives Ellman a chance to exchange thoughts with Reid and bassist Stephan Crump; "A Motive" is another labyrinthine groove work that fits together in unexpected ways; and "Skeletope" starts with uncertainty before settling into a space where the band works as one and thins out for a Crump solo. The penultimate piece— "Vibrograph"—works many of the same angles that Ellman touches on earlier, but the album-ending "Enigmatic Runner" stretches beyond the rest of the material. It brings electric and acoustic thought together atop a skittery "drum 'n' bass" type of foundation.

Ellman's vision isn't so far off from Threadgill's, as dovetailing ideas, toying motifs, angular melodic lines, an appreciation for distinctive voices and instrumental combinations, and a loose-tight duality all play a part in the written and recorded works of each. Extreme organization is also present in the work of both men, but it's sometimes harder to hear that in Threadgill's expansive and challenging music. Ellman makes the nature of the order in his work clearer to the ear, as voices merge and detach in recognizable ways. His music is outward bound, but nobody could ever mistake it for being adrift.

The work of musicians who push the envelope is often easier to admire than enjoy, but Ellman has created something that's eminently listenable. Radiate is a joy to behold, as it's incredibly impressive in its complexity of vision and clarity. This one is certainly in the running for album of the year.

Track Listing: Supercell; Furthermore; Rhinocerisms; Moment Twice; A Motive; Skeletope; Vibrograph; Enigmatic Runner.

Personnel: Liberty Ellman: guitar; Steve Lehman: alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Jose Davila: tuba, trombone; Stephan Crump: bass; Damion Reid: drums.

Title: Radiate | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: Pi Recordings


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