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Rich Halley: Terra Incognita

Dan McClenaghan By

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Saxophonist Rich Halley usually sticks with his steady crowd. Indeed, when tallying Halley's collaborative compadres over the past couple of decades, his list of "recorded with" players comes down to a handful of names: drummer Carson Halley, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich and bassist Clyde Reed. Add cornetist Bobby Bradford on a couple of outings. The same for reedman Vinny Golia. And then there was the collaborator from the earliest days, drummer Dave Storrs, in the beginning of the new millennium.

Halley and company have molded an accessible (perhaps the word "relatively" should be plugged in there), ofttimes wild-eyed free jazz, a sometimes boppish, shape-shifting groove fest. Bold stuff; no pussyfooting around: Halley blows hard. His fellow band members know how to accessorize and butt heads with him.

For Terra Incognita, the Portland, Oregon-based saxophonist steps outside of familiar territory, with a new batch of bandmates from the high profile end of the spectrum: pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker.

The first impression of an initial spin of the disc says: Halley hasn't changed. He still comes right at you, at times with the force of a hurricane that will—usually unexpectedly—give way to a gentle breeze that sets the low branches (and the windchime of Shipp's piano) into a calming rhythmic reverie.

It is Halley's meeting with a pianist that makes this recording so special. A roll through the saxophonist's discography reveals only pianist Geoff Lee, on Cracked Sidewalk (Avocet Records) in 1988. Mathew Shipp seems uniquely qualified to break that keyboard drought in Halley's work. Shipp's contributions to the recordings of another firebrand saxophonist, Ivo Perelman, have been prodigious—seven duet discs with Perelman in 2017 alone, to scratch the surface. His accompaniment for Halley's bold approach carries its own audacity, and it also displays a capacity for understatement, delicacy of touch and a refinement that contrasts with the roaring and rough hewn Halley saxophone attack. Shipp's energy on his turn on the twelve minute "The Opening" is busy and sophisticated, deft and ebullient, underscoring Halley's torrential reentry with a percussive counter-storm, aided and abetted by Bisio and Baker.

Halley's vision is, here and always, sharply focused on shaping a cohesive statement from start to finish. He bellows and blusters, then he leans in close and for surprisingly articulate conversation, with his cohorts riding his wake, rolling on the shifting swells.

The disc closes with "The Journey," clocking in at an epic seventeen minutes. It begins with Halley blowing in a measured mode, parsing out gruff and portentous proclamations—just this side of honking—over Shipp's subdued piano sparkle. Then things gather gradually into a manic squall that blinks out with Shipp's and his rhythm section partners tumbling into a ruminative search, leading into Halley's return, sounding introspective and wee hour Coleman Hawkins-ish.

Between "The Opening" and "The Journey," the sound remains the same. Powerful free jazz from a cohesive quartet that walks a line between the raucous and the sublime.

Track Listing: The Opening; Forager; Centripetal; The Elms; Terra Incognita; The Journey.

Personnel: Rich Halley: tenor sax; Matthew Shipp: piano; Michael Bisio: bass; Newman Taylor Baker: drums.

Title: Terra Incognita | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Pine Eagle Records

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