The New York Times


Capturing the Alluring Tension of Opposites in a Tug of War


Published: January 15, 2004

One of the games played by smart jazz musicians, especially since the 1980's, has been to reconcile opposing feelings of disjunction and completion, stuttering and grooving. This happens when you properly cross funk, with all its nubby phrases and rhythmic accents, with the traditionally more flowing feel of jazz since the swing era, and that basic tension can draw in an audience. Henry Threadgill used that tension; in recent years Greg Osby and Dave Holland have built great bands with it.

Liberty Ellman, a young guitarist who performed with his quartet at Sweet Rhythm on Tuesday, has played with Mr. Threadgill and Mr. Osby; he also likes that tension of opposites. (The show was the second in a series of Tuesday performances through February that Mr. Osby booked for Sweet Rhythm, a West Village club.)

Using a traditional jazz guitarist's clean, soft tone, Mr. Ellman played quietly in separated phrases. Some were slow and made of strange intervals, and some came in melodious runs of eighth-notes that sounded familiar to anyone who has listened to Jim Hall; solos were broken up with a few unusually voiced or strummed chords.

Mr. Ellman's band, which includes the tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, the bassist Stephan Crump and the drummer Derek Phillips, does not play blues or modes or standard song forms; like Mr. Threadgill, Mr. Ellman likes to write long themes with tricky, unexpected chord movements or unresolved repeating lines over vamps, for odd-meter rhythms.

Mr. Ellman sets the bar high for himself, and the pieces performed during Tuesday's early set, from the new album "Tactiles" (Pi Recordings), are the sorts of works that require lots of gigs to sound as good as they can: they were neatly played, but music this difficult takes a while to become pleasurable, when all the agreed-upon strategies can be deftly upended on the fly.

But one can already see what settling into this music might bring. Mr. Ellman's ballads are special, exotic things: their melodies are memorable, and in one ballad, "Temporary Aid," Mr. Ellman and Mr. Shim showed that they were evolving into foils for each other.

In the piece, Mr. Shim has his saxophone spend a lot of time in its low register, and he plays with a broad, heavy sound and sure feeling for time; Mr. Ellman likes to play high notes lightly and tends toward a mysterious, drawling, fractured style.