Liberty Ellman – Radiate (2015)

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Since joining Henry Threadgill’s Zooid nearly fifteen years ago, guitarist Liberty Ellman has quickly established himself as a key member of Threadgill’s longest-running ensemble, assuming the role of producer and mixer on their last four releases in addition to acoustic guitarist. That gig, along with encounters with the likes of Joe Lovano, Jason Moran, Wadada Leo Smith, Somi and other living jazz luminaries across the entire spectrum, has kept the progressive-minded Ellman plenty occupied. Not to mention engineering jazz recordings for many others, besides Threadgill.

That’s left little time for him to pursue his own projects so it’s now been nine years since his last one, Ophiuchus Butterfly first appeared. All this has added more to the anticipation of the coming on August 21, 2015 of his next one, Radiate, his third one for Pi Recordings.

Given the many roads Ellman has traveled (figuratively speaking) as a sideman and mixing engineer, you’d guess he’s picked up a lot from begin immersed in creative greatness, and you’d be right: Ellman distills his influences, and creates something wholly his own from them. The influence of his erstwhile boss Threadgill looms the largest, something he acknowledges in the CD sleeve: Thanks to Henry Threadgill for being a well of inspiration.

Radiate, is at its core, holds firm to some Threadgill-ian principles of interlocking, multi-threaded harmonics, rhythms and improv, but Ellman contemporizes it, informing his muse with funk, rock, electro-acoustic….even a taste of hip-hop.

Most of those components are present on the bustling “Supercell,” and become apparent once you get past Jose Davila’s lively bass-lines blown from a trombone, the same role he assumes for Zooid. But Jonathan Finlayson, a rising star on trumpet and the genius alto saxophonist Steve Lehman offer up their own competing statements to Ellman’s fuzzy electric guitar and in spite of the jagged rhythm, this is a funky song.

“Rhinocerisms” is an elongated melody too, but the notes are stretched out further, and Ellman with Lehman find the gaps left behind from Davila, bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Damion Reid to put two trains of musical thought in opposition to each other with surprising results. “A Motive” serves up more of the Zooid-like song construction, but with Crump ably holding down the complex bottom end, Davila (on trombone) is freed up to play a more traitional role and puts in a convincing solo. Lehman’s own best moments comes during the driving “Vibrograph,” where Reid’s combustible pulse pushes him to greater heights.

“Furthermore” contrasts from the other tracks with a suspended melody, developing at its own pace. In this setting where the note placements are largely unscripted, you can really appreciate Ellman as a guitar player who follows his instincts a lot more than following in the footsteps of guitarists before him.

Ellman’s electro-side, merely suggested throughout most of the album, comes to the fore at the end. He mixed live performances to create the audio illusion of programmed music for “Enigmatic Runner,” which still loses nothing in the way of detailed, carefully-conceived handmade composition.

Liberty Ellman’s Radiate could be recommended simply on the strength of the roster full of musicians poised to dominate the jazz world, at least they will if there is any justice in this world. Another wish is that Ellman leads dates more often; he’s too talented in too many areas — composition, chops and studio skills — not to.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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