Rich Halley's leader debut Multnomah Rhythms (Avocet, 1983) featured a large ensemble, a formation that the saxophonist favored for the better part of two decades. When he pared back personnel, he was equally committed to his quartet, recording six albums with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, bassist Clyde Reed and son, Carson Halley on drums. The Outlier (Pine Eagle, 2016) expanded the quartet to a quintet with the addition of Vinny Golia on baritone sax and bass clarinet. The saxophonist downsized further, and early, if uncertain, comparisons to the group sound of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago gave way to a clear identity of Halley's own unique style. With Terra Incognita Halley steps outside the comfort zone of familiar colleagues and he gives listeners a stimulating, innovative slant on his always multifaceted music.
It's been over two-decades since Halley has recorded with a pianist, and then in a larger lineup, so the dynamics here are something new. And what piano trio could be better suited to the unrestrained and commanding reedist than that of Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker? The interactions, particularly between Halley and Shipp, are packed with uninhibited animation.
The twelve-minute "Opening" sets the tone that dominates Terra Incognita. Baker's gentle rhythm on the ride cymbal introduces the piece but it dissolves in seconds as Halley and Shipp join in but take different directions. Halley's explosive burst sets up an extended solo from Shipp at mid-point; it's expeditious and supplies the first hint of a prolonged melody. Halley returns at a breakneck pace to wrap the piece up. "Forager" and "Centripetal" bring things back to earth with identifiable themes and less in the way of pyrotechnical displays. "The Elms" takes a more laid-back approach though its abstract nature keeps the listener on guard throughout. Closing the album with the seventeen-minute "The Journey" recaps with variations of many of Halley's concepts, if not protracted themes, which are the exceptions on the free-wheeling Terra Incognita.
It's hard to go wrong with personnel of this caliber but Terra Incognita is a collection for listeners looking past paradigmatic ideas. Halley uses every bit of the tenor with virtuosic technical abilities; even for the seasoned improviser, this music is freer and frequently more frenetic than his past work. When Shipp, Bisio and Baker move to the forefront they are audacious and assertive; their command of shifting and complex developments, as impressive as ever, and Baker's contributions cannot be overstated. Terra Incognita is a challenging and rewarding entry in Halley's catalog.
The Opening; Forager; Centripetal; The Elms; Terra Incognita; The Journey.
Rich Halley: tenor sax; Matthew Shipp: piano; Michael Bisio: bass; Newman Taylor Baker: drums.
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