Guitarist Liberty Ellman is one of those rare sidemen who’s simultaneously able to support the ideas of the bandleader while being unabashedly himself. It’s no wonder that he’s forged long relationships with some of jazz’s most influential thinkers and bandleaders—Henry Threadgill, Joe Lovano, Vijay Iyer, and many more.
Last summer, Ellman stepped out to center stage with the release of Radiate (Pi Recordings), his first solo album in nearly a decade. This Friday at The Jazz Gallery, Ellman will reconvene the album’s high-powered band for two sets of thought-provoking yet deep-pocketed music. We caught up with Ellman by phone this week to talk about the lessons he’s learned from working with leaders like Threadgill and creating piquant and unusual ensemble textures.
The Jazz Gallery: So it’s been nine years since your last solo release, Ophiuchus Butterfly. What’s kept you busy between your last release and your most recent release, Radiate?
Liberty Ellman: In the time between releases, I was busy with Henry Threadgill. I’ve been in his band for a long time, and have learned a whole lot about different ways to deal with forms as a bandleader. He has so much to offer as a mentor in that role. It’s always busy. I’ve also been working with Joe Lovano, and I think there’s going to be some more of that next year. He’s an amazing player.
TJG: Could you talk a little more about what you’ve learned in terms of form and structure from Threadgill?
LE: Everything Henry does comes from the perspective of being a composer and a player. Music for him isn’t just a vehicle for soloing; it includes a lot regarding what he hopes to achieve in terms of ensemble sound. I always admire how varied and creative his forms are. For example, we don’t do traditional ‘ABA’ forms; there could be six or seven different sections. After he writes everything, he pretty much considers it modular, so when we rehearse, we might just play one or two sections at a time, and then reorganize the piece depending on what happens during the rehearsal. We might change who solos on what section, move melodies around, or rebuild structures as we go.
TJG: In light of that modular approach to form, how would you describe your approach to form on Radiate?
LE: I certainly try to be more experimental, in terms of reevaluating how things are structured after writing, rehearsing, and playing them. All of the pieces have different thematic material as starting points, so it’s not fair to apply the same typical process to each piece when the music is so varied. I definitely have some of Henry’s influence in my own arrangements. Take the track “Rhinocerisms” for example. I didn’t necessarily plan on having a tuba solo at the beginning of the piece. But after we rehearsed it and tried playing that section that way, everyone felt as though it was a great place to start. We wouldn’t have known that if we hadn’t tried it that way in rehearsal.
TJG: On your website, “Rhinocerisms” is the first track that greets us on the landing page. Do you feel that the piece is broadly representative of your voice on Radiate? In other words, what’s the relationship between “Rhinocerisms” and the rest of the album?
LE: Well, that piece has a lot of different things going on. It’s sort of through-composed, in the sense that once certain themes are stated, we don’t necessarily revisit them. Steve Lehman and I have solos over different parts of the pieces, and we employ different styles of playing. That piece tends to be the one I share with people because it’s got a bit of everything. It has a nice guitar solo, different kinds of grooves, etc. And I really like the laid-back grooves that Damion and Stephan got into on the recording, particularly in the sections before the solos.
TJG: What were some of your initial thoughts towards harmony, especially given your brass-heavy instrumentation?
LE: A lot of the music isn’t based on a typical approach to jazz harmony. I’m not really thinking in terms of voicings, diminished 6th chords and so on. Rather, it’s all based on the ways the melodies contrapuntally fit into the grooves. One exception is the tune “Furthermore,” which is a sequence of chords that I wrote a while ago. The chords go forwards and backwards in a certain pendulum effect. But even there, I changed some things in rehearsal so it ended up not being completely symmetrical. It goes up, comes back about halfway, goes up again, then repeats. There’s a nice motion in the chords that I really like. The voicings there are a little more straight-ahead, and the guitar melody is the top note of each voicing. That was fun. But for me it’s all pretty intuitive. I’ll start with a bassline, a melody, or some rhythmic structure, and build it up around that. I fill it all in around the main idea, rather than starting with a theoretical concept.
TJG: What excites you about the combination of brass and guitar, in terms of timbre?
LE: I love the way they sound together. I’ve been playing with Jose Davila for a longtime in Threadgill’s band. His rhythmic concept is amazing. His time is great, he’s supportive, and he never seems to run out of air [laughs]. He can play these syncopated funky bass lines that are so much fun to play over. But then, when you put him in a melodic role, he can blend while retaining his presence. Paired with the guitar, there’s something congruent about the timbres. The brass has this really pure sound, and the guitar sits right in the middle of it, especially when Jose plays trombone. It almost sounds like one instrument. The saxophone blends well too, but it distinguishes itself with the vibration of the reed; unless I’m using distortion, it’s quite easy to tell the saxophone and the guitar apart. Everyone in the band is versatile and ambitious when it comes to rhythm and groove, so they’ll tackle anything with flexibility. Anything might happen.
TJG: You seem to get pretty deep into effects on the album as well!
LE: I’ve always been into effects. I play a lot of music outside of jazz, and ever since I was a kid I’ve had distortion and octaves and loopers. The effects act as a natural extension of my instrument. They can get in the way with the other instruments if we’re trying to blend, but they work well for mysterious and saturated sounds, or atmospheric ambiance and abstraction. I also enjoy taking sounds from electronic music and figuring out how to blend them with what I’m doing in a natural way.
TJG: If Radiate was someone’s introduction to your sound as a composer and performer, what sort of takeaway would you hope that person might have?
LE: [Laughing] I’d hope that they’d take away that I want the music to be interesting and have a lot to offer, and yet still be listenable and fun, in terms of the feel. It’s important for me that no matter how complex the form or concept, anyone could find a groove in it. The music can be challenging at certain points, but I actually just want it to be fun to play. Of course, I rarely think about it while writing, but I definitely try to balance challenge and fun for my musicians.
TJG: And what kind of stuff are you listening to these days that makes you feel that way when you listen?
LE: It’s funny, at this moment I’m actually practicing a lot and am going back pretty deep into piano trios. I want to do a mostly trio record as my next project. There are some incredible guitar trio records with Joe Pass or Wes Montgomery, the classics, as well as modern peers of mine. But the percussive interaction that you hear on, say, a Bud Powell trio record is so rich. I want to incorporate that element into it. Harmonic rhythmic interplay. Most of my records have focused on single-line melodic work, so I’d like to explore more rhythmic and harmonic interaction. So, I’m listening to a lot of Bud Powell, Sunny Rollins, Herbie Nichols, Monk, just to get it going.
TJG: The album art on Radiate is beautiful. What’s the story?
LE: Funny you should mention that, and thank you. I’m actually a hobbyist photographer, and that is a picture of a mountain in New Mexico superimposed on a picture of a rusty wall. I have some Photoshop skills, so I guess you could call it ‘digital photo art.’ So what you’re seeing is the two images, rust and a distant mountain, blended together. I accidentally reversed the colors as well, so the red of the mountain actually comes from the color of the rust.
TJG: It’s been great talking with you. We’re excited about the show.
LE: Thanks! I’m looking forward to hitting this music with the sextet. It’s not easy for the whole band to get together and I don’t try to find subs for these musicians, so it’s a privilege for us to be playing together.
The Liberty Ellman Sextet plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, August 12th, 2016. The group features Mr. Ellman on guitar, Steve Lehman on saxophone, Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jose Davila on trombone & tuba, Stephen Crump on bass, and Damion Reid on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.