One thing is certain when approaching a Rich Halley
recording: it's likely that you will hear the history of the saxophone in his playing. He's as capable of filling the room with fractured sound as he is in gently ruminating over a haunting phrase, and bop licks are as common as noisy abstraction on his albums; indeed, one might find all of these traits within the same piece. On his latest, The Shape of Things
, he's fortunate to have the same set of collaborators who joined him in 2019 on the excellent Terra Incognita
(Pine Eagle Records): pianist Matthew Shipp
, bassist Michael Bisio
, and drummer Newman Taylor Baker
, each of whom is as adept in navigating stylistic boundaries as Halley. The result is an engaging and often riveting set of freely improvised jazz, played at the highest caliber.
As was the case on their first outing, these four players have an unmistakable synergy that allows them to play as one, though the music is free and undetermined. And "Tetrahedron," the album's opener, swings right off the bat, with Halley throwing out spirited riffs while Bisio and Baker develop a loose-jointed groove and Shipp works his way through a series of chord progressions and figures that offer piquant coloration. A boiling intensity eventually ensues, although Bisio and Baker are able to steer the proceedings into more jazz-inflected terrain, with a hard-driving tempo that Shipp inhabits comfortably, scampering all over the keyboard. But that's not all, as the pace eventually slackens completely, giving Halley a chance to re-enter with some deep, bluesy ponderings before once again assuming a more animated voice as the quartet complements his open-ended musings skillfully. The piece has the feel of a completed journey, remarkably cohesive despite its free- ranging explorations.
The other five pieces are similarly capacious. "Vector" veers closely to a bebop language, with Baker and Bisio in the pocket while Shipp and Halley probe its contours, before opening up toward the end with more rhythmic freedom, which Halley takes full advantage of. The relatively brief "Spaces Between" features Halley at his most soulful, with a gorgeous reflection over restrained and sympathetic support from Shipp that contains just a hint of an unsettled tension. "Oblique Angles" engages Shipp and Halley in extensive conversation, with Baker's nimble work on the toms giving the track a dancing qualityand Shipp even throwing in some Latin flavor midway through it.
But the group is at its most powerful on the last two tracks. "Lower Strata" has Halley honing complex lines over a surging rhythmic energy fueled by Shipp's relentless pulsing chords, while "The Curved Horizon" is a no-holds-barred free jazz blowout. Halley's barely- controlled fury is evident throughout, and his colleagues somehow keep things contained even in the midst of his most ecstatic flights.
For its breadth of inspiration, and the delightful twists and turns that each piece embodies, Halley's newest is yet another terrific addition to the leader's sizableand consistently accomplisheddiscography.
Tetrahedron; Vector; Spaces Between; Oblique Angles; Lower Strata; The Curved Horizon.