The expression “three strikes and you’re out” becomes “three and you’re on again” as force-of-nature tenor saxophonist, Oregon based Rich Halley once again teams with leading creative music scene improvisors pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker for the more than aptly named Fire Within. This is Halley’s 25th album as a leader and follows The Shape of Things and Terra Incognita with this same group. Halley’s followers pretty much know what to expect from this thunderous, take-no-prisoners quartet but he is new to these pages. Halley has recorded over one hundred original compositions in various configurations. Currently he leads Rich Halley 4, a group that has released six albums of original music. He was the leader of The Lizard brothers, a four-horn sextet, and the Outside Music Ensemble, a horns and percussion group did unamplified outdoor shows. In addition to these three avant- gardists, Halley has performed with Tony Malaby, Vinny Golia, Bobby Bradford, Nels Cline, Julius Hemphill, Andrew Hill, and Oliver Lake, esteemed company to say the least. Halley would be better known if he were based in New York but is a well-established West Coast artist with a contagious spirit of adventure. This album was recorded in Brooklyn.
The opening title track quickly gives the spotlight to both Shipp and Bisio after the leader’s introductory solo. Shipp’s rapid fire two-handed lines and Bisio’s muscular chops stoke the momentum so when Halley returns, his attack is even more forceful but with an eye to the lyrical as well. Eight minutes in the motifs are jagged, leaving room for Baker to make his kinetic statement before Halley restates the head and Shipp just fades it out gently. Bassist Bisio leads us quietly into another lengthy piece, “Inferred,” after which Halley blows sustained lines over Shipp’s descending three chords, Halley playing in a spiritual context that evokes Coltrane and modern-day James Brandon Lewis. At the same time, his lower register focus over Shipp’s monstrous left hand rolling motion is somewhat akin to Coleman Hawkins. The ever- intense Halley then veers from the spiritual into a series of blurring, multi-note clusters complete with Albert Ayler-like squawks as Baker creates a maelstrom on his kit. The storm abates for Shipp to weave and thread his way through the kind of improvised solo that has become his signature, especially his use of the sustain pedal. Just as in the previous, a more relaxed Halley reprises the theme.
“Angular Logic” is rather self-descriptive as the quartet sounds like a triple dose of Monk both in speed and intensity with Shipp’s thunderous motion on the keys and Halley going deeper (and screeching higher) than Charlie Rouse would have ever conceived. Requisite calm then appears in another aptly named piece, “Through Still Air,” as Halley’s elongated lines float over Shipp’s shimmering piano and Besio’s alternate pizzicato and arco support with Baker sending up zephyrs of cymbal flourishes to accent the gorgeous tapestry. The disc closes with “Following the Stream,” clocking in at almost sixteen minutes. Baker takes the first turn with his snares and toms, before employing every element in his kit. Halley enters at the three-minute mark, blowing initially in a measured mode that builds to incandescent levels over Shipp’s jagged, left-hand dominant accompaniment. Soon as Halley and his bandmates disregard all guard rails and “the search” is on, Pharoah Sanders like. Shipp also commences his solo rather deliberately before engaging in a ruminative search of his own. The pianist turns more aggressively percussive in comping behind Halley’s reentry, filled with staccato bursts, his trademark clusters, and drawn-out low register notes. The exchanges between the two are like a high-level ballet. Shipp then goes high energy mode, with his rolling arpeggios and when Halley rejoins, it’s as if this highly charged ballet goes to another level.
If you’re hearing this quartet for the first time, you’ll likely search out their two previous releases. They find a balance between explosive, white hot free jazz, and sublime restraint as well.
- Jim Hynes
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