Silvery Guitarist Writes Engrossing Tunes and Plays Better Solos


The guitarist Liberty Ellman was born in London and raised in a Greene Street loft until schooling took him to California. There he hooked up with pianist Vijay Iyer and, in 1997, self-produced a noteworthy debut, Orthodoxy. Like Iyer, he returned to New York, attracting attention with his own trio and in projects with Iyer, Greg Osby, and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid. He has now released his second album, Tactiles, which is certain to turn heads. Ellman’s engrossing compositions employ seesaw vamps, eerie intervals, counterpoint, and tunes indistinguishable from the rhythms that ground them. The net effect is modern, even harmolodic, while remaining consonant and rhythmically charged. He likes moderate tempos and concise solos, emphasizing a feeling of measured exploration.

One might wish that he hadn’t composed the entire album (Orthodoxy finished with a luscious reading of Strayhorn’s “Blood Count”), because Ellman lacks a strong sense of melody—except as an improviser. His variations blend chromaticism, space, ringing chords, and a distinctive silvery tone, and always sustain interest. He suggests at times a cross between Grant Green (limber single-note phrasing) and Jim Hall (chordal punctuations and graceful caesuras). The album works as well as it does because his quartet is tight as a fist and his writing governs the texture and mood of each piece. Mark Shim’s tenor has never been more engaging, and bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Eric Harland appear to be monitoring and encouraging a conversation between the principal soloists. On three tracks, Osby joins them, mostly to beef up the ensemble. But he lets loose on “Ultraviolet,” which has everyone swinging into a shrewdly effective finish.