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Liberty Ellman: Radiate

Troy Collins By

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Radiate is guitarist Liberty Ellman's fourth album under his own name since 1997 and his third for Pi Recordings, following 2006's Ophiuchus Butterfly. Ellman's output as a bandleader over the years has been secondary to his role as an in-demand sideman however, working with such luminaries as Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Myra Melford, and Jason Robinson—hence his somewhat limited discography. Most significantly, Ellman has been a charter member and sole guitarist in renowned composer Henry Threadgill's longstanding Zooid ensemble, serving as the AACM veteran's primary foil for the past decade and a half.

Not surprisingly, the polyphonic counterpoint and interlocking rhythms that form the foundation of Ellman's urbane writing parallel Threadgill's own unique aesthetic. Reinforcing this connection, fellow Zooid associate Jose Davila (tuba, trombone) anchors the low-end in Ellman's sextet, while most of the other members are graduates of the M-Base school, which employs complex compositional concepts that are comparable to Threadgill's. Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson is a member of M-Base founder Steve Coleman's Five Elements; alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and bassist Stephan Crump are both regular collaborators of M-Base trained pianist Iyer; and drummer Damion Reid frequently works with both Lehman and Finlayson.

Although Ellman's writing bears some similarities to his longtime employer's, this session features Ellman playing electric guitar exclusively, with a forceful attack that amplifies the proceedings—in stark contrast to his acoustic work in Zooid. The bulk of the program evinces a striking rhythmic sophistication, although there are exceptions, like the sweeping New Thing romanticism of "Furthermore," which conveys an epic strain of rubato lyricism far removed from the metric convolutions of numbers like "Supercell" or "A Motive." In each case, Ellman solos with tasteful verve that eschews clichéd six string pyrotechnics, occasionally augmenting the idiosyncratic phrasing of his unorthodox melodic contours with subtle efx.

The sterling frontline navigates Ellman's labyrinthine charts with vim and vigor, matching the leader's alacrity with aplomb. Lehman's acerbic alto and Finlayson's expressive trumpet spin contrapuntal harmonies in collusion with Davila's subterranean brass, gracefully interlocking with Crump and Reid's modulating interplay. With their thorny melodies and shifting time signatures, episodic tunes like "Rhinocerisms" and "Vibrograph" cater to the band's manifold strengths, while the introspective miniature "Moment Twice" showcases restraint. Radiate closes dramatically with "Enigmatic Runner," a bold electro-acoustic hybrid that effectively demonstrates Ellman's forward-thinking approach in ways his sideman work rarely does.

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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