Friday, June 7, 2019

Paul Flaherty - Focused & Bewildered (Relative Pitch, 2019) ****


By Nick Metzger

"So...Who is this guy?" These words are a touchstone in the liner notes for Mr. Flaherty's first solo release, 2003's Voices. The notes are an insightful reckoning on what it means to be a free improvising artist (he was 54 at that time, and had already been at it for most of his life). He speaks of "the artist in residence", that part of him that just wants to blow, to shed the tired conventions and self-conscious-over-thinking and just play. Play and see where it takes him. Play and chase the coattails of his crazed goddamn muses into the cool green valleys of the Promised Land. It's been 11 long years since Paul Flaherty released a solo album. The last was his 2008 masterpiece Aria Nativa (an all-time favorite of mine), so I was extremely excited to hear about this new release from Relative Pitch. Honesty pours from the bell of his horn. There are no gimmicks, there's no overt cleverness, only white-hot sparks of humanity raining down on all of those with a mind to listen. His twisted outbursts are caustic indeed, but often capped with strikingly plaintive cries; beseeching the void for her hidden truths. His collaborations are multitude and have yielded some of the fieriest American free jazz in the last 20 years. His long running duos with drummers Randall Colbourne and Chris Corsano are the stuff of legend. Some of my favorite collabs have pitted Flaherty against the all-out guitar squall of Bill Nace and/or Thurston Moore. He's also conspired with the likes of Wally Shoup, Steve Swell, Daniel Carter, Greg Kelley, Weasel Walter, C. Spencer Yeh, Steve Baczkowski, John Moloney, Tiger Hatchery and on and on. This new release, Focused & Bewildered, presents 10 new cuts of Flaherty going it alone, full strength and unfiltered, straight from the tap.

The first track "Where has the future gone lately" begins plaintively, in his fashion, before developing into a full-throated roar. Flaherty's trademark vibrato and audible growls shade the piece and it is immediate and entrancing. "Shaped by heavy light" weaves a similarly hypnotizing pattern before a wave of staccato phrases bursts forth, dissipating just as quickly back into rough avant-blues. He begins a brief rhythmic motion in "Patience finds the long game" before abandoning it and abruptly launching into an extended passage of gravelly glossolalia. "Children in need of defense" is a brief distillation of moaning grief countered with what sounds to me like unbridled rage. The title hinting at the horrors unleashed on the innocent by a rogue orange buffoon. "You're about to be robbed dude” highlights one of his defining traits, working strands of golden melody into great sinewy and broken forms. It gets hot indeed, but it's always inventive and authentic. The next track, "It stomps among us" finds the saxophonist firing rhythmic barbs and gruff honks between passages of lamentation interleaved with plaits of squawk and throaty moaning. "Power or service" features many of Flaherty's characteristic turns-of-phrase and melody folding. I sometimes detect shades of Giuseppe Logan in his playing, this track being a good example of that. Both players have an inherent honesty in their phrasing that makes it almost speech-like. On "Flabbergasted empathy" Flaherty works himself into a true brown study. You can hear his horn resonating as the great column of wind conjures aural poltergeists. On "Public outrage blues" he continues to purge his demons, pausing occasionally for a melodious taffy pulling or a blast of sharp edged skronk. The last track, "One touch of a car horn" presents a thorough distillation of all that has come before. A closing statement, if you will.

"So...who is this guy?" I find Flaherty to be a branch of the true vine, Hartford's own free jazz street preacher. I probably read too much into his particularly expressive playing, but in a climate where words are cheap and lies bounteous it comes across as an honest but caustic elixir. The way his long, bluesy, introspective phrases suddenly erupt into a dazzling shards of light, seemingly refracted through the dirty, broken glass ashtray that is 21st century America inculcates a sense of grief, frustration, and anger. And in this sense it reaches me as an extraordinarily honest and human expression in these dark times. All of this delivered by a set of lungs that could put a blow dart through a cinder block wall.

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