Just Jazz: Ellman disc up to label's standard
By Kevin Lynch

Published: May 11, 2006

Pi Recordings is the sort of intrepid small jazz label that gives me hope for the art form sustaining itself in an increasingly cutthroat and bottom-line record business.

In the last few years, the New York-based label has made a series of recordings of high artistry and professionalism, while staying committed to both established and younger artists who expand the boundaries of the music in intelligent and exciting ways.

The label has recorded recent work by such notable cutting-edge names as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Madisonian Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton and Leo Smith, the under-recorded Revolutionary Ensemble and one of the best records of 2005, "Back in Time" by Odyssey the Band. This was the gutsy trio led by guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer that had fused Ornette Coleman's "harmolodic" free jazz and gritty country blues in the 1983 Columbia classic "Odyssey."

Pi has also provided recording forums for such gifted, venturesome young talents as guitarist Mark Ribot, Fieldwork (with pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Steve Lehman) and now the Pi debut by guitarist Liberty Ellman titled "Ophiuchus Butterfly."

This remarkable record feels like the embryonic launching pad for a fresh talent with all the radiant dynamism of the winged creature for which the disc is named.

Ellman brings to mind the brilliant trumpeter-leader Dave Douglas. He is more of a conceptualist and a musical artist than an instrumentalist, per se. As Ellman wisely explains, "It's really about the pieces I wanted to write before anything else."

That reflects just enough focused self-assurance to make this disc a fully realized work of art rather than a bunch of lead charts wrapped around some solos. The most characteristic Ellman pieces involve harmonically and rhythmically resonant material that spurs taut yet quirky dialogues among the players, usually with strong grooves that range from supple to outright funky.

The pulse is enhanced by tuba player Jose Davila, who adds a brassy boost to the rhythm section's bottom end.

So all the players play with an ensemble mentality, even during their frequently collective solos, which result in complex but lucid conversations. However, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim sounds like an ensemble player almost to a fault. On the bluesy ballad "Aestivation" he reveals a poetic authority that sounds like Lester Young reborn as a post-modern player.

I would've liked to have heard more of him. We do hear plenty from the sharp young alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, who variously betrays influences of Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill and Anthony Braxton.

Those same influences arise in Ellman's pieces, which is large praise because those three are among our most original contemporary jazz composers. So, in that sense, Ellman is still finding his own conceptual voice, while already possessing a startling level of daring and depth. By contrast to his adventurous compositions, Ellman's guitar work is fairly straight ahead but with some nice harmonic twists.

Among the less groove-oriented pieces is the almost cinematic "Snow Lips," which, for its apparently electronic abstraction, captivates the listener with surprising emotional weight - almost like opening a dead man's diary to discover the secrets of his soul.