Liberty Ellman has often been a secret weapon. Maybe it’s what he’s learned from the M-Base musical school of thought. Maybe his ears are made of pure magic. He’s like salt– seasoning and improving anything he’s added to. In that regard, Ellman’s collaborators often are as much a part of his voice as he is. It’s always a delight to hear him play with bassist Stephan Crump or alto saxophonist Steve Lehman. Having them together in this configuration, blowing the lid off another group of compositions is an engrossing pleasure.
The moment Jose Davila’s tuba blasts everything into motion at album opener, “Supercell”, reminding us all so well of that feeling that pulls together every Henry Threadgill Zooid album (so soon after the release of a new Henry Threadgill Zooid album). Each song rolls along with an admirable craftsmanship that never cedes itself to the songs’ pure enjoyment.
There’s something about these circular compositions. Half of these eight songs feature little phrases, musical incoherences outside the context of these songs, but neatly returned to once again like Chekov’s melody. The absolute beauty of this same device in the linked penultimate tracks, “Skeletope” and “Vibrograph”, brings this trope home with great aplomb. The neatness of these songs, their order and vibe, make it clear there was consideration in this album design. It’s 42 minute runtime makes this a compact, efficient group of songs. It’s a pliable album, so well crafted it easily lends itself to repeat plays. One can endlessly devour it like chips and great salsa because, much like Andy Greenwald’s comments on Kanye West’s Yeezus, it is great for its bravery and its brevity.
It’s interesting hearing how Ellman is mixed in this album, squarely in the middle of things. He’s not intending to stand out in front the whole time. The solos in “Rhinocerism” or “A Motive” seem written for their featured players, the telltale sign of a leader who knows his group well and has known them for a while. Everything about this album’s makeup notes the evenness of this outstanding group, which explains why Ellman isn’t trying to be the biggest, baddest (,or loudest) thing in the room.
There’s so much beauty to be found in this album– the swelling crescendo of “Furthermore” as it reaches musical heights of a band truly clicking, midway through Ellman’s solo on “Rhinocerisms” when one can feel the afterburners were kicking in, Lehman’s alto saxophone solo but particularly a soulful little run of notes at 3:38 in that can almost evoke tears, Damion Reid murdering the kit at album closer, “Enigmatic Runner” and the creeping realization that he had been killing it all along but it is here for his own featured song that he’s finally being let out the cage.
Radiate is an album worthy of all its effusive praise. Ellman hasn’t released an album as a leader since 2006’s Ophiuchus Butterfly. He’s stayed constantly involved in assorted groups in all this time, but it’s hard not to think he’s spent this time gestating on this album, waiting until every bit of these songs was just perfect, waiting for folks like Jonathan Finlayson and Damion Reid to slide into Mark Shim and Gerald Cleaver’s slots, tweaking his work into something so magnificent as this. In the nine years since Ellman’s last release, an already brilliant guitarist, composer, arranger, and mixer grew to be even more brilliant and it shows in every possible way on Radiate, hands down one of the finest albums of 2015.
Liberty Ellman’s Radiate is out August 21 on Pi Recordings.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.