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For Liberty Ellman, guitar was the starting point but composition was the key. The 48-year-old started as any aspiring guitarist of his generation might — listening to Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Prince. But it was exploring his mother’s vast record collection that set him on his path. Particularly noteworthy was his discovery of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, with John McLaughlin on guitar.
“Hearing the way John played in that format was a gateway,” says Ellman by phone from his home in Brooklyn. “Hearing a relatively modern approach in a jazz context, even though the record was relatively old by then. I thought it was amazing.”
From there, he says, it was “down the rabbit hole” of jazz: Ellington, Mingus, Monk, Coltrane, Wayne Shorter — “all great leaders and composers and players, all very important for me in what I thought a jazz musician would do.” He adds, “It was never just about blowing for me. It was about creating the context for the music.”
Though Ellman has long been a peerless guitarist — with a beautiful, precise attack and broad harmonic vocabulary and imagination — his writing is what distinguishes Last Desert (Pi), his fifth disc as a leader and the first since 2015’s Radiate. As on that previous album, Ellman is joined by alto saxophonist Steve Lehman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, tubaist Jose Davila, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Damion Reid. Ellman and Davila have a two-decade relationship as members of Henry Threadgill’s Zooid. The similarities between Ellman’s and Threadgill’s approach are immediately apparent. Melodic lines proceed in quirky chromatic steps, with odd dissonances and rhythmic displacements. And like Threadgill, Ellman favors a “modular” conception of form. Pieces might start anywhere — a solo, a group improvisation, a duet — before proceeding to a unison theme. Or not.
But Ellman’s music has its own sweet lyricism, as in the breath-like group harmonies of opener “The Sip” or the way he juxtaposes Lehman’s hard-edged spitfire attack with Finlayson’s long-lined, lyrical cool. One of the highlights of the album is a graceful pas de deux for trumpet and tuba on the title track. And Ellman’s layered, complex rhythms don’t exclude a fast walking-bass pulse with dotted cymbal hits.
Ellman says he likes to think in terms of narratives when he writes. The new disc sprang from “an idea about a soundtrack for a sort of post-environmental disaster” — a “last desert” — until he found that there was actually a marathon foot-race series called 4 Deserts, from Namibia to Antarctica (the “last desert”). Without trying to be too literal, Ellman combined the concept of endurance with “the idea of perspective and shapes and distances and the quality of a landscape pattern.” The album’s cover image — an abstraction of pink, white and bituminous black — is drawn from Ellman’s own landscape photography.
In addition to his mother’s record collection, Ellman credits as influences the composers with whom he has since played, including Steve Coleman, Myra Melford, Joe Lovano, Jason Moran and Threadgill. As for his own band, you could make a Venn diagram of their overlapping relationships and influences, from Threadgill (Ellman and Davila) to Coleman (Finlayson) to Vijay Iyer (Lehman and Crump), with Reid crossing over into Lehman’s and Finlayson’s bands.
Whatever the complexities of Ellman’s music, listen to any of his solo spots on Last Desert — his delicate single-note melodies and chording on “The Sip,” his runs of sprightly funk on “Liquid” — and you know he hasn’t lost sight of his early inspirations. “The first Coltrane record I listened to was A Love Supreme, which I wasn’t ready for. But the more I listened to it, the more it made sense to me. It was a clarifying moment, the way you could communicate that raw emotion through your instrument. That remains important to me in terms of what I hope to deliver in my own music.” - Jon Garelick