The fact or myth that jazz guitarists are underrated does not belie the reality that in the hands of a capable musician, the stringed instrument commands expression and presence. Liberty Ellman’s latest offering, Tactiles, obliterates the "normal" jazz guitar mindset with its eclectic and progressive tendencies. Having hung out on stage and in the studio with the likes of pianist Vijay Iyer and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill, Ellman brings a natural, forward thinking progression in the creation of music. His debut effort, Orthodoxy, incorporated odd tempos, dark riffs, and elements of hip-hop wrapped in a jazz package.
Tactiles is Ellman’s next chapter, finding him featured with a powerful rhythm section supported by some killer saxophones. The selections are a showcase of very modern work with a lingering call to quiet greats such as Grant Green and Jim Hall. Ellman renders a fat and robust sound from notes on the lower register. Another distinction of his sound is the skilled usage of blending chords and external notes while soloing or comping.
The ensemble of musicians includes power bassist Stephan Crump, dynamic percussionist Eric Harland, and saxophonist Mark Shim. Guest sax stylist Greg Osby adds icing to the cake on three tracks with music that is complex, engaging, and always forward. Ellman’s deep sound, combined with Mark Shim’s raspy tenor throat, form a nice parallel of textures on the smoldering “Helios,” which also features some nice drum excursions by Harland.
Pieces such as “Excavation” and “Clean Is Rich” are imbued with an M-Base flavor with abstract stylizations and odd rhythms. Ellman also grooves with a mellow ease on the surreal “Temporary Aid” against Greg Osby’s silky alto lines. The horn arrangements are smartly implemented on the reggae-like cut “Rare Birds” as Shim and Ellman exhange tight solos against Crump's staunch bass lines. Mark Shim is the perfect complement to Ellman’s voice, playing with verve on every selection. On “How Many Texts” and “Ultraviolet” Osby and Shim both join in on the fun, exchanging interweaving lines with Ellman’s guitar. The net result: Tactiles is worthy as one of 2003’s top picks.