An emerging 6-string titan on developing his distinct style and sound, fanning the flames of inspiration, composing and improvising, and his cool guitar collection.
Not long ago, guitarist Liberty Ellman got a mysterious phone call from the saxophonist and bandleader Henry Threadgill, who asked him to meet for breakfast and some “information.”
“Henry had just gotten back from Cuba, and I thought ‘information’ was a code word for rum or cigars,” says Ellman, laughing. “But it turns out he had seen a great band there playing a music called trova, which features the tres. [The tres is a guitar-like instrument with 6 strings tuned in 3 courses.] He handed me a tres he’d brought back, and I said, ‘Oh my god, do you expect me to learn to play this?’”
Ellman, one of Threadgill’s key collaborators for 15 years, is influenced by the saxophonist’s deep curiosity about music, especially in terms of form. But Ellman has his own identity as a composer and bandleader, as is apparent on his latest album, Radiate, a quintet outing featuring eight original compositions—music that is complex and cerebral, but pleasurable to listen to.
Ellman, who is 44, cut his teeth in the Bay Area in the 1990s, playing everything from theater to hip-hop gigs while forming lasting relationships with bold jazz musicians like saxophonist Steve Coleman and pianist Vijay Iyer. After moving to New York in 1998, Ellman started collaborating with Threadgill in the ensemble Zooid, and since then he’s worked with some of the biggest names in modern jazz, including saxophonist Joe Lovano, pianist Myra Melford, and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.
On his four albums as leader, Ellman has established himself as one of the most compelling voices in modern jazz. With his warm, clear tone and light and nimble touch, he’s got a foot planted in the jazz guitar tradition. But with his surprising choices of intervals and his penchant for evocative and unusual chords, not to mention his judicious application of overdrive and delay, he’s somewhat of an iconoclast. What’s more, his impossibly clean technique would be the envy of even the fiercest shredder.
Speaking from his home, in Brooklyn, New York, Ellman chatted with Premier Guitar about his impressive guitar collection, his nonstandard methodologies, his small onscreen role in a Jimi Hendrix documentary, and the creative charge that comes from working with Threadgill and other masters, inspiring him to try to create a “unique world” within his own band.
There are a bunch of killer guitars, both vintage and new, on the gear section of your website. What have you been playing lately?
I’ve been playing a Collings acoustic—an 01 in sunburst—for about 10 years, and since I love that guitar I got an I-35 LC. I really love that guitar, too. It’s got a great weight and is nice and small but sounds really rich—no less rich than the ’65 ES-355 that was my main guitar for a while. With a nice vintage guitar like that, maintenance requires a lot of attention, and you have to worry when traveling with the instrument. But the I-35 plays and sounds every bit as amazing, and I don’t have to be precious with it. Everything is great about it, from the finish to the frets. It sounds cliché, but they really do pay attention to all the details down there in Austin.
What are some of the other highlights in your collection?
I’ve got a 1960 Telecaster Custom with the slab board neck and bound body, all original except it’s been re-fretted. It’s got a narrow neck but the tone is just gorgeous—everything you’d want out of a Tele. I’ve got a 1959 ES-175, all original down to its PAF pickups. It hasn’t been parted out like some of the Gibsons from that era. That guitar is also gorgeous. Oddly enough, it’s in museum-quality condition, without even one scratch on the body, but the frets are pretty worn down. I have no idea how the previous owner or owners managed to keep it that clean! Then there’s the ES-355. What’s cool about that one is it’s a factory mono example without the Varitone that many players choose to remove. It used to have a Lyre [vibrato tailpiece], but now it’s got a stop tailpiece. It’s a really great guitar. As for acoustics, I love my 1953 J-50, which is really fun to play.
Liberty Ellman brandishes his 1965 Gibson ES-355 at the January 2014 Alternative Guitar Summit at New York City club Subculture with his trio, completed by bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Gerald Cleaver.
Photo by Scott Friedlander
Most of those guitars aren’t typically associated with jazz. How did you get into collecting?
It was only natural. I grew up in a musical house—my mother knew Jimi Hendrix—and so I’ve never been a stranger to rock music and a fascination with guitars and amps and all that. One of the goals I have for a future record is to take all these different guitars and have the album be a showcase for their versatility.
I have a really good friend I’ve known since high school, named Heath, who’s a voracious collector. He was the first person I’d heard of paying two grand for a Stratocaster. This was back in the late ’80s. He lived in San Francisco and got a job at a vintage shop, where, in the days before eBay, he had access to great instruments that didn’t even make it to the floor. Every once in a while he’d call and say, “Hey, I’ve got something I think you should take a look at.”
One funny story was that we went to a flea market in Marin City, which is outside of San Francisco, where, along with a bunch of other random things, someone was selling a ’64 Deluxe Reverb. He wanted a hundred bucks for it, but said it wasn’t working. I didn’t have any cash, and Heath bargained the seller down to 50 bucks. It turned out nothing major was wrong with the amp, just that the reverb channel was blown and it needed new tubes. Once it was fixed, I gave Heath a couple hundred bucks for it. I still have it—it’s a beautiful amp.
Describe your family connection to Hendrix and music in general.
My mom and dad were both musicians. My dad’s a drummer and used to play in Todd Rundgren’s Utopia band, back in the early ’70s. We lived in a loft in SoHo [a New York City neighborhood]. My dad had a practice room and Todd and all kinds of people came by. My mom was more of a singer-songwriter, and she knew all kinds of musicians and even sang with Band of Gypsys in New York at some point. Anyway, she and I are in one of the Jimi Hendrix’s documentaries—the one called Jimi Hendrix [from 1973], where he’s sitting on a stool on the cover. She’s interviewed about him briefly, talking about going out dancing, and I’m in the background as a baby, crying. That’s my degree of separation.
When did you first get into guitar?
I started guitar lessons when I was five—the kind of lessons where the teacher puts a book in front of you and tries to teach you “Yankee Doodle Dandy”—but it didn’t take. A friend and I recently had a conversation about what would be the proper thing to inspire a kid of that age on guitar, and it was an interesting discussion, but we didn’t come up with a good answer—other than not “Yankee Doodle.”
I got really committed to guitar when I was 12, not long after I had moved to California with my mother when my folks split up. Around the same time, I was getting familiar with my mom’s record collection. She had a ridiculous amount of stuff—all the Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin albums, Albert King, Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis—just an amazing collection. She loves to tell the story of when I walked up to her and told her she had so much great music in her collection—as if she didn’t know. In any case, my mom had the Miles Davis album In a Silent Way, and that’s the first jazz record where I was really seduced by the guitar. I was fascinated by what John McLaughlin did on the record and how the guitar fit into these sound worlds that Miles Davis had set up, not just blowing over a static backbeat. Then, I went down a rabbit hole, checking out all the people that Miles had played with, and in the process discovering everything that had happened in jazz in the past 60 or so years.
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.
Inspiration can be found anywhere, Liberty Ellman believes, from hearing a fragment of intriguing music, the sounds on a subway platform, or the echoes of urban landscapes. Photo by Alan Nahigian
Talk about your compositional process on the album.
A big part of it is who I work with—who I get along with, not just the instrumentation. So when I set out to start writing the music, I definitely think about the players I’ll be working with and what they will sound like together.
Then it’s a matter of coming up with the actual music, which happens in a lot of different ways. Anything can serve as a launching pad for a piece, from picking up on a strange rhythm in some really inspiring music or standing on a subway platform and hearing some kind of polyrhythm or melodic fragment as the train pulls into the station. I try to remember an idea like that, or sing it into my iPhone, and then notate it in Sibelius when I get home.
Sometimes I have what seems like a really fresh idea and then I’ll sit and labor over it, only to find that it’s not something that I can flesh out into a composition, so I have to throw it away. Other times, I’ll start flowing on an idea, and whatever emerges from that becomes the piece, and not the original idea. You never know what will happen.
Other times I’m more pragmatic. I might sit down with a blank page and just think about what I’m trying to accomplish. If I’m writing new music for an outdoor festival with a lot of people attending, I won’t go for something that’s super moody and delicate, since more robust music will be needed to fill that kind of space. If I’m going for a studio project with a couple of horns, I’ll be in a different headspace entirely and will probably write something sparser.
How do you create an identity as a composer and improviser?
I think it’s important to push yourself and figure out how to give yourself a new platform for improvising—and then write music that doesn’t sound just like everyone else’s band. What I’m trying to do is not be strange or difficult, but to create a unique world in my band. People talk about being able to instantly identify a guitarist, from just two notes, because of their phrasing. It’s the same way with my work as a composer. I’m always thinking about how I can write a chord structure that’s not going to sound like the string of ii–V progressions that have been in American popular music forever.
How do you avoid these structures and convey nonstandard approaches in an ensemble setting?
I learned from people who’ve been doing it for a long time. Henry Threadgill has been at it for 50 years, so he’s got a lot of experience with trying to come up with something novel. He’s steeped in contemporary classical music and nonstandard notation, like graphic scores—things that shake up preconceived ideas about what makes a good improvisational vehicle.
You end up collecting all of these different concepts, and then they make it into your subconscious, so when you’re writing you draw from this base of knowledge without it seeming like an exercise. In other words, when I’m writing, I never think, “I’m gonna make this a tone row”—even though I’ve used tone rows before.
I want my pieces to sound good and to feel good and for my band to be able to learn them quickly enough, even if it’s something complicated. I pick players knowing that they have the tool set to get right in there, without it sounding like we’re on a construction site. Sometimes jazz composers can get so ambitious with their ideas, but it’s impossible to manifest them in a real-time situation.
With subdued grace and some cool chord choices, Liberty Ellman leads his quintet into this performance at New York City’s Cornelia Street Café from September 2015. But just past the 50-second mark, he bursts out with fluid, unpredictable legato soloing on his Collings I-35 LC that illustrates his unconventional ear and burnished technique.
You’ve played with Henry Threadgill for many years. What’s it like to work with him?
It’s tremendously inspiring on a number of different levels. Henry’s in his early 70s now, but he’s more energetic and prolific than a lot of musicians I know who are in their 30s. Working with him, I’ve learned so much about composition. He really has an unusual way of working with forms and has always been especially interested in the music of composers like Stravinsky and Elliott Carter. He’s not just into the music because they’re modernists, but is fascinated my how their music works and what motivated it.
If you pay attention to Henry’s forms, they’re never AABA. It’s not like he’s writing pop songs that need to be planted in somebody’s head, fast. He’s got all kinds of interesting long forms, and that’s had a direct impact on my music and on the way I hear music. Within those frameworks he creates his own harmonic strategies, with a system of intervals that you have to learn to play his music. That’s not only had an effect on the way I hear melodies, it’s made me more diverse in listening to my own voice.
Henry’s a very good bandleader and knows how to inspire loyalty. He’ll write music for your strengths and also your weaknesses. I’ve always had a hard time reading in the highest register of the guitar and so he’s written pieces that have me playing way up there. He even made himself a paper neck with frets drawn on it so he would know what works. He goes to great lengths, and I think he really cares about what my experiences are. And he makes rehearsals fun. A lot of time folks in New York are too busy to do six rehearsals, but when Henry calls, you look at your calendar and think, “I can be at home watching Netflix—or playing jazz with one of the greatest living composers.”