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Rich Halley: Terra Incognita

Troy Dostert By

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In a musical career that stretches back to the 1980s, tenor saxophonist Rich Halley has stoutly maintained his independent path in creating jazz that is inspired by the freedom of the '60s avant-garde but which also draws liberally from the language of bop. You can hear both Albert Ayler and Sonny Rollins in his playing. But it's not just his distinctive voice on his instrument that stands out; it's also the effort he's devoted to maintaining a steady cadre of associates—a small community, essentially—with whom to refine and develop that voice. Halley has generally eschewed the temptations of recording one-offs with the most high-profile avant-gardists, choosing instead to stick with a common core that has remained remarkably constant over the twenty-plus recordings Halley has released as a leader. Bassist Clyde Reed, drummer Dave Storrs, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich and, more recently, his son, drummer Carson Halley, are the names that pop up again and again, especially from the early 2000s, when Halley's prolific consistency really hit its stride with a steady stream of fine recordings that shows no signs of stopping.

All of which makes his current release, Terra Incognita, all the more welcome and surprising. For this is without question as close to a "supergroup" of avant-garde all-stars that Halley has ever assembled. Pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker each have resumes a mile long when it comes to working in free improvisation/avant-garde circles. At least on paper, then, this meeting looked to be something special indeed. Fortunately, the results do not disappoint.

The six improvised pieces here are free flowing, with all the uncertainty and excitement that follows from abandoning structure and simply turning it loose. But importantly, there is a logic that emerges within each untethered conversation, illustrating a natural affinity between the four musicians. One aspect that becomes noticeable almost right away, from the lead track "Opening" onward, is the strong pulse that drives the music forward. Bisio and Baker have a deep, intuitive sense of rhythm, so even when the music is at its freest and most unhinged there's usually a compass point that allows a pathway to cohesion. This happens midway through "Opening" when, after Halley rests following an acerbic burst of tenor glory, the music transitions into a fast-paced, bop-like segment built off of one of Shipp's formulations, with Bisio and Baker eager to find the groove that Halley is more than happy to occupy when he rejoins the group. A later track, "Centripetal," blazes right from the outset, with Bisio's manic bass line propelling the music forward relentlessly, Baker's steady ride cymbal in close accord, as Shipp and Halley soar over the top. The music is intense and even ferocious at times—but it swings hard. There are even hints of an Afro-Cuban vibe on the album's title track, with a virtually danceable momentum at its core.

It's not just the rhythmic ingenuity that impresses, though. Halley's melodic sensibility sure-handedly guides the proceedings, as he frequently tosses out rich riffs that can serve as launching points for the others—especially Shipp, who is always looking to wrestle with and develop those ideas as they emerge. Listening to the two shadow each other on "Forager" is a pleasure, and their chemistry on the softer-toned musings on "The Elm" is striking, almost to the point of sounding composed at times. And yes, "The Journey" is exactly that, with Halley pursuing the whole gamut of possibilities, from soulful reflections to bop-infused licks to full-bore, blistering blasts.

Although it's more than likely that Halley will return to working with his regular comrades for his upcoming projects, it's a real treat to see him taking some chances with such a talented group of improvisers. An outstanding album, and one that's sure to stand out among Halley's very best.

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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