Rich Halley’s “Outlier” Great, Creative Jazz

Halley_The_Outlier_COVER

RICH HALLEY 5: THE OUTLIER / HALLEY: Recipe for Improvisers; Urban Crunch; Green Needles; Du Fu’s Stew; Rising From the Plains; Reciprocity; The Nuthatches. R. HALLEY-GOLIA-VLATKOVICH-REED-C. HALLEY: Around the Fringes; Long Blue Road; The Way Through / Rich Halley, t-sax; Vinny Golia, bar-sax/bs-cl; Michael Vlatkovich, tb; Clyde Reed, bass; Carson Halley, drums / Pine Eagle 009

This, tenor saxist Rich Halley’s latest album is his 20th and the first to feature five players instead of four. The new addition is baritone saxist and bass clarinetist Vinny Golia, whose instruments add extra color to the ensemble, but this would be for naught were the compositions less arresting. Halley has not only the gift of improvisation but also the good taste to write music that is highly original and structured, reaching backwards (as so many young and not-so-young jazz musicians are doing nowadays) to the age of Mingus and George Russell.

To that mix I would also add the much lesser-known name of Rod Levitt, the trombonist-composer-leader whose four albums in the mid-1960s (one for Riverside, the other three for RCA) have become cult classics among jazz musicians, particularly jazz composers. Particularly the opening track, Recipe for Improvisers, is so Levitt-influenced that I would have sworn I was listening to an out-take from one of his recordings. This is not to denigrate Halley or his musicians, but rather to compliment them. Even if the Levitt influence is accidental it is there if at a second-hand remove, though so too is a bit of mid-‘60s Sonny Rollins (particularly in Halley’s powerful and highly inventive solo work). He also takes a cue from Mingus in his construction of pieces with alternating tempo sections, which sound at first simply as extensions of the main theme but are in fact building blocks that move the music into different themes or developments of such.

Moreover, the second piece on this set, Urban Crunch, almost sounds at first hearing as if it were an extension of the opening piece, not because it is so similar but because it strikes the ear as a development of Recipe for Improvisers. Here, however, both the initial tempo and the succeeding sections are at a much quicker pace—one might almost say, an Allegro movement to the opening’s Andante con moto. Here, the Levitt influence sounds less strong, but the influence of Mingus a bit more forceful. One also begins to notice one of the more enticing qualities of this band, its ability to work together in terms of tempo and accent. What I mean by this is that, as the soloists improvise, they shift the meter as they work around the changes, and the bass and drums move with them as if they were all one mind, going in the same musical direction at once. Is this solely the result of improvising or, perhaps, the result of having worked together as a unit to the point where they can read each others’ minds in terms of rhythmic placement? Whichever the answer is, the end reuslt is stunning. Golia’s baritone playing has a gutsy edge to it that I like very much—more of a Sahib Shihab or Pepper Adams influence than Gerry Mulligan—while his bass clarinet solos have a touch of Eric Dolphy about them, but not so much as to seem imitative.

With the third piece, Around the Fringes, we reach the first of three works on this disc that were “composed” via collective input. I got the distinct feeling that this piece, at least, took its cue from the opening rhythmic cell payed by Vlatkovich on trombone, to which the others add their joyful if somewhat quirky counterpoint. Here, the rhythm section seems to be working its own “thing” behind Halley’s tenor solo and not necessarily following his rhythmic patterns; Vlatkovich interjects detached staccato notes into the mix, at which time Halley starts to folow his lead, but a bit too late as the composition comes to a sudden halt at about the two-minute mark. Green Needles has a bit of soul-jazz feel to it, yet the pulse sounds irregular, as if the band were trying to deceive the listener with what sounds like a comfortable pulse when in fact it is not. Certainly, the rhythm section’s tempo shifts and occasional displacements keep things moving while pulling the listener a bit off here and here. Vlatkovich contributes a brilliant trombone solo played mostly in staccato notes, and within this solo are more rhythmic shifts in the form of dotted quarters and repeated eighths. By the time Halley comes in with his solo, the music has become so much a rhythmic jumble that it almost sounds like something that Michael Mantler or Arthur Blythe might have done. The gradually increading tempo brings things to a climax, following which is a moment of silence before the quirky original theme returns for the rideout. This is one strange piece!

Du Fu’s Stew, with its opening arco bass drone over which we hear cymbal washes and long-held notes by the sax and trombone, has a real Mingus feel to it. I find it heartening to hear so many jazz bands nowadays following Mingus’ lead in the way he constructed tunes and “led” his soloists through them. The almost excruciatingly slow pace continues as the theme playing ceases; more cymbal washes lead into Golia on bass clarinet while the others moan softly in the background, upon which he fades away to allow the leader some quadruple-time playing on tenor before coming back to put his two cents’ worth in here and there. There is a certain Oriental feel to this piece in the way the bassist and horns slide up and down chromatically in such a way as to almost create the feel of quarter-tones.

Long Blue Road, another collective piece, starts out medium tempo with pizzicato bass before becoming an uptempo jam. Here ther eis no ambiguity to the tempo—it’s a straight four all the way. Perhaps a tribute to Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Long Yellow Road? It certainly has the sound of a Toshiko and Lew piece to my ears despite the use of the bass clarinet, an instrument one seldom heard in Toshiko’s bands. It’s nice to hear a fairly straightahead swinger amidst so much offbeat material. Rising From the Plains opens with tom-toms and an octave-leap motif reminiscent of Les Brown’s Leap Frog, but quickly morphs into something more complex and, I might say, a bit sinister in feel. Drummer Halley keeps up the tom-toms under Golia’s baritone solo, but now shifts the accents within the bars to diffuse the strong 4/4 feel. Golia becomes quite excited here, doubling the tempo, before the trombone enters, a bit calmer and more reasonable in demeanor. When Halley enters it is in double time, but now the mood has lightened and his solo almost sounds happy by comparison with what preceded it. Carson Halley follows with a rare drum solo (pretty much staying on the tom-toms), after which we get the ride-out.

The somewhat sinister mood continues in the third and last collective piece, The Way Through, and this is undoubtedly the most abstract piece on the album. Little scattered remnants, half-melodies and snippets of such, come and go as the band deftly wends its way through this slow-moving yet difficult abstract maze. What a tribute to the instinctive skills of these musicians that they are able to “put something together” out of this paleozoic “soup,” eventually morphing into a slow but equally ominous-sounding steady 4 for the last chorus. Reciprocity has, perhaps, the strangest rhyth of all the pieces on this set; it sounds like a 4 but the beat shifts are such that one never comes out right if one counts that time, despite the fact that the rhythm section plays the rhythm fairly strongly. Once we get into the solos, started by Golia on bass clarinet, the tempo (such as it is) is doubled, at least until he lets out a semi-strangulated scream in the upper register, at which point Vlatkovich enters with a trombone solo that sounds like someone sinking into quicksand as the tempo turns into slush beneath him. Then we get an almost fully suspended tempo as the leader solos on tenor, followed by a pause and then the coda played in the initial pulse.

We end our musical journey with The Nuthatches which, like the opening piece, has a sort of Rod Levitt feel to it. A rhythmic figure played on bass clarinet over the snare drum in a different rhythm set the tone for a “smeared” melodic figure played over both. This becomes the dominant feel for the piece even after the trombone re-enters, now playing a crisp, staccato improvisation over the snares and bass. Golia’s bass clarinet solo here is all “outside” playing, almost screaming in pain, as both he and the rhythm section double the tempo. Another drum solo by Chris Halley follows, turning just a bit into Gene Krupa before the leader enters on tenor, also playing outside solo lines.

The Outlier is a wild and fascinating album that will both challenge and impress you. I highly recommend it!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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