AMN Reviews: Liberty Ellman – Last Desert (2020; Pi Recordings)

Liberty Ellman is a guitarist who is well known for his contributions to Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, but has also collaborated with a number of others in the modern jazz scene. On this, his fourth release on Pi Recordings, he is accompanied by Steve Lehman on alto sax, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jose Davila on tuba, Stephan Crump on bass, and Damion Reid on drums.

Ellman stands with one foot in tradition and another in a much more adventurous place. Not overtly avant-garde, Ellman’s compositions are knotty and layered, managing to be complex, intellectual, and exploratory without going very far outside or relying on extended techniques. He plays largely without distortion.

For instance, the pair of title tracks, Last Desert I and Last Desert II, vary between contrapuntal themes for smaller subsets of the group, and workouts involving all six members. The interplay between Ellman, Finlayson, and Crump, in particular, has both the delicacy and strength of a piece of classical music. But there are also breaks into subtle grooves, some droning elements, a solo or two, and aggressive, precise contributions from Reid. Lehman adds a discordant sax solo over an irregular rhythmic pattern, then Davila plays alone for a while before the rest of the group joins in for an intricate set of melodies.

In contrast, Rubber Flowers has a catchy – yet complex – main theme and a more discernable groove. Doppler offers staccato horn bursts over a steadier rhythm and relatively subdued playing from Ellman.

Regardless of structure, Ellman approaches his compositions with both intellect and feel. This is far from a guitarist’s solo album.  Indeed, Last Desert can easily be placed on the same shelf as recordings from Threadgill – which is saying a lot.