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There's something remarkable about musicians employed by Henry Threadgill. While they're virtually guaranteed to be exceptional players, their personal styles are almost entirely eclipsed by the challenge of his compositions. Going all the way back to the Fred Hopkins/Diedre Murray duo, what you get with Threadgill's bands is very different from what you get with the members alone. Thus a list of his bandmates is a roster of talented players with a variety of takes on the jazz idiom.
It goes without saying, then, that Liberty Ellman - a member of Threadgill's Zooid - is a great guitarist. And even within Zooid he show some serious jazz chops. But his association with Threadgill wouldn't seem to suggest a relatively straight-ahead, if complex, approach to jazz. Ellman plays cleanly and voices chording much older than his 32 years. His band (tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Eric Harland, with Greg Osby guesting on alto sax on three tracks) is sweet and mellow, playing low-key '60s-style guitar jazz, except that the themes are languid and long. Not unnecessarily so, Ellman writes cleverly woven heads. The pieces are rich and uncluttered, and the leader does a nice job comping against the horns.
If there's a complaint to be made, it's that the horns get in the way of the themes. They don't detract exactly, but Ellman's ideas - both in composing and playing - are so colorful that a guitar trio would give him the spotlight he deserves. Tactiles is a much more coherent statement than his first disc, Orthodoxy (Red Giant, 1997), and greater things are no doubt to come.
As a kid, my mom told me I'd like jazz. I thought she was nuts. Then I went to hear Cannonball Adderley (with Nat Adderley, George Duke, Walter Booker, Roy McCurdy and Airto) and everything changed. Yeah, mom knows best.