Rich Halley Inspects The Shape of Things

The Shape of Things cover

what a performanceTHE SHAPE OF THINGS / HALLEY: Tetrahedron. Vector. Spaces Between. Oblique Angles. Lower Strata. The Curved Horizon / Rich Halley, t-sax; Matthew Shipp, pno; Michael Bisio, bs; Newman Taylor Baker, dm / Pine Eagle Records, no number

Tenor saxist Rich Halley is one of those rare birds who stubbornly plays what he likes, and most of what he likes are his own compositions.

In today’s jazz world, however, that is not always a badge of honor. I have heard numerous CDs of “original” music that consists primarily of a few tuneless licks strung together before the band in question simply starts improvising, and they call that a composition. But Halley is different. Even as far back as July 2916, when I reviewed his album Outlier, I praised him for writing and playing great, creative jazz, and this praise continued through his subsequent releases, The Literature and Terra Incognita, the last-named with the same lineup that appears on this CD. This album is scheduled for release on November 4.

My regular readers also know how impressed I’ve been with pianist Matthew Shipp, many of whose recordings have been extended free-form duets with the highly talented tenor saxist Ivo Perelman. His many discs with Perelman, which include a few multi-CD sets, have set, in my view, an entirely new standard for “outside” jazz. Because he plays a chorded instrument, Shipp is able to both follow and “lead” Perelman into more cohesive shapes as the pair strike out into unexplored musical territory. The Perelman-Shipp duo is one of the most treasurable in modern jazz.

Halley’s playing on this disc, particularly in the opener, Tetrahedron, sounds eerily at times like Perelman’s. The difference is that Halley plays with a grittier edge to his tone and occasionally interjects a more lyrical flow into his improvisations whereas Perelman is almost consistently angular. In this first track, at least, Halley also plays less notes per bar than Perelman; at some moments he resembles Eric Dolphy, at others Pharoah Sanders, but for the most part he is his own man. Shipp, on the other hand, is his usual creative self, presenting us with a no-holds-barred approach to jazz piano. There were times when I felt that Halley went On Beyond Zebra, giving us high-register screams that I simply felt were inappropriate in this piece, but moments only. Shipp is given a chance to shine in a solo of his own, and does he ever! Then, suddenly a shift in both tempo and mood as things slow down and Halley playa with a rich, warm tone.

Vector uses a sort of shuffle beat as well as an extended melodic line that is simultaneously modern in addition to harking back to the era of hard bop. Halley’s high-register squeals here are less frequent, less abrasive and more coherently musical, but his top line is so arresting and complex that, for an extended period of time, Shipp acts merely as accompanist and not as a full partner in development, though he does extremely well with a nice single-note solo when his turn comes up. Michael Bisio also gets a solo in this one, and an extremely fine one it is, not at all “outside” jazz but a full-toned, swinging solo in the tradition of Eddie Gomez. Halley re-enters playing a series of repeated figures using the notes A-G, then begins swinging again, now at a faster clip with some upper-register squeals, for the ride-out.

Spaces Between is a slow number; one would call it a ballad under normal circumstances, but the amorphous pulse doesn’t allow the listener to settle in comfortably. Halley plays with a warm tone, Shipp creates interesting musical shapes in the background, and the bass and drums chip in where and when they can, mostly nudging the music forward without settling into a regular metric pattern. Oblique Angles certainly lives up to its name, being built around little five-note motifs played by the saxist which eventually work their way into an edgy, difficult-to-grasp melodic line while Shipp and the rhythm section tinkle, plunk and bang their way through a series of sharply angular rhythms, though bassist Bisio basically plays a continuing series of fast, single-note lines as the surrounding material becomes more and more excitable, eventually erupting in Halley’s tenor sax going all over the map. There’s more than a touch of Monk in Shipp’s solo on this one.

As the album continues, one begins to understand the theme of the music. The titles are not just stuck on for no reason; each describes a rhythmic and compositional approach to each piece. Lower Strata is no exception, the music here consisting of a running figure in 4, played as a perpetual motion piece, with the emphasis being not only on the bass but also on the piano’s  bass line, which persistently pounds along as the music progresses. Shipp is particularly brilliant in this one, while The Curved Horizon plows through like a freight train. Bisio plays an excellent solo on this one, staying within a narrow harmonic range but pressuring the rhythm via swinging and fracturing the beats.

With no disrespect towards Bisio and Baker, whose contributions on this album are exceptionally good, this is essentially a show for Halley and Shipp, simply because they are the most brilliant and original musicians playing here. I wonder if some Halley-Shipp duo albums are in store for us? Whether or not this is the case, however, The Shape of Things is clearly a brilliant album.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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