Whether played on electric or acoustic guitar, Liberty Ellman’s nimble lines are somehow abstract and lyrical at the same time, and his refined technique would be the envy of even the fiercest shredder. Photo by Scott Friedlander
Did you study jazz formally?
Yes. I went to Sonoma State University starting in the fall of 1989, and that’s where I really got into the heady stuff. What I really liked about being at the school was that the professors I studied with—[guitarist] Randy Vincent and [bassist] Mel Graves, and other brilliant musicians in the department—were very interested in finding out what you wanted and helping you get there, rather than saying, “This is how you learn.” Nowadays jazz music is taught in a very dogmatic way, with a lot of kids getting exactly the same information, having nothing to do with what makes artists and helps people find their own sounds. The faculty at Sonoma taught in an opposite way, but without overlooking the importance of having a solid foundation.
Did you play a lot in the Bay Area during that time?
Yes—in all kinds of bands. The scene was really great, with a lot of working musicians and plenty of audiences going out to hear live music. It was a lot smaller than the scene in New York, and what’s great about that was that I got to spend a lot of time with different musicians in different circles. The scene wasn’t big enough for me to do just one thing. I played jazz gigs, got into the theater scene, and played in a hip-hop group called Midnight Voices. I played with an amazing singer named Ledisi. It was a really great point in time, and things sort of petered out, coinciding with the dot-com bust at the end of the ’90s, which is when I came to New York.
Did you leave California because the scene seemed to be drying out?
The timing was kind of coincidental—the real reason being that I had gotten so enamored with the idea of playing jazz, and New York seemed like the obvious place to be to get deep into the jazz scene. Otherwise there’s no reason to come out here to put up with these cold winters! [Laughs.]
Another thing that happened was that [saxophonist and bandleader] Steve Coleman did a month-long residency in California, in Oakland, where he set up a home base and let musicians come to him. He encouraged me to move to New York, and that was a pivotal moment, having someone at his level give me a vote of confidence.
Let’s talk about the new album, Radiate. Which guitars did you use?
I used the I-35 LC on the whole record, except on one track called “A Motive,” where I played the 01.
You play the acoustic in an idiosyncratic way.
I play the 01 more like a jazz guitar than a flattop—single notes and comping stuff, not too much of the strumming or fingerpicking people tend to associate with a steel-string acoustic. The great thing about that guitar is that it doesn’t feed back when it’s amped, so I can really control it in a band situation. With the volume rolled down, it’s got a really sweet acoustic sound. With the volume up, more of an archtop sound. The big difference in the way I play it is that I tend to do a bit more staccato picking because it has less sustain than an electric guitar. It’s a little closer to Pat Martino in style than what I might do on the I-35 LC, using more legato lines.
The album is filled with interesting ensemble textures, like on the head of “Vibrograph.” What’s going on there?
The main section of that piece, which is in 5/4 time, has a melody that’s not strictly a canon [in which one voice or instrument states a theme that is played in succession by other instruments] but kind of resembles one. The melody is passed back and forth between the bass, guitar, and the alto saxophone. It creates a kind of hypnotic effect.
Did you compose the piece using any classical compositional techniques, or was it more intuitive?
I didn’t have a particularly academic approach. It was more about improvising patterns on the guitar—some polyrhythms, like six notes against five—that I wrote out and then distributed between the players, as opposed to playing the piece in unison and sounding like “Take Five.”
“Enigmatic Runner” is based on a nonstandard time signature. How do you express it?
That’s 11/16—two beats plus three 16th-notes. The piece started from playing a repeating rhythm in that time signature, and it felt like an endless cycle. It might look tricky on paper, but it feels totally natural to play in 11/16.
On the album, you have a broader sonic palette than the typical jazz guitarist. Talk about your amps and effects.
I used a 1965 Vibrolux Reverb amp and an Evans AH200 head, which is solid-state but has a really complex overtone thing to it, making it sound more tube-y and less neutral than most amps of its type. The Evans, by the way, is great for traveling, since I can always get the sound I need and not have to rely on whatever amp is available.
In terms of pedals, I used a Klon Centaur Overdrive, a Hermida Audio Zendrive, and an Ibanez Tube Screamer, plus an MXR Analog Delay, and a TC Electronic Hall of Fame reverb pedal—stuff that I used when I reamped a couple of things after the session. Since I mixed the record at my place, I had plenty of time to experiment with the sonics.
Reamping is an interesting choice for a jazz album.
To me, reamping is an exciting tool. What if I were to record an album with a direct signal and later my best friend brought over his Dumble to play a track through? Why not do it? You’re not changing the performance. I think it’s more important when you’re recording an album to maintain integrity in terms of the way the band interacts and the way the players improvise. If you cut and paste extensively then you’re taking away authenticity.
Are there any situations where you might edit a performance?
Because of the Pro Tools era that we live in, if you like, say, everything up to the piano solo on a track, you might end up splicing everything after the solo from a different take. Since everything that happened before and after the splice are complete entities—as opposed to composites made with a whole lot of tracking—I think it’s fair game.