By Paul Acquaro
Saxophonist Rich Halley, hailing from Portland, has a background that begs metaphorical reading: he's a trained biologist who conducted research on rattlesnakes, likes to spend time in the wilderness, and ended up in the music business. Somehow his 2019 outing with pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio, and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, Terra Incognita, slipped through our purview undetected. With a line up like that, and with all indicators from just the opening tracks of this combo's new release The Shape of Things, the sudden onset of FOMO was justified.
Halley has a fiery sound on the saxophone - the adjective is basically a collocation, and an apt one at that. The album begins with the track "Tetrahdron" and it starts with a controlled blast from Halley, to which Shipp responds with a dry, and perfectly selected, cluster of notes. The cluster of notes - from both Shipp and Halley - become a theme, a short snippets patched together. The timing is uncannily good and they rapidly escalate the intensity. Baker's percussion is light and precise, adding a bit more momentum - which almost seems unnecessary - but sounds so good when it is there. Bisio adds to the punch as well with pointed rhythmic comping. Perhaps that a secret to a quartet that works well together: each set of players works well on their own, but then adding another to the constellation makes it even better.
One track that repeatedly has caught my attention is 'Vector'. The second track on the album is quite different than the opening track. Starting off with Halley playing a extended melody, he is joined by the trio in a more traditional sense. Newman's drum are swinging, Bisio's bass is walking, while Shipp tosses out harmonic firecrackers. The track builds with a controlled, logical intensity to the middle of the tune, which finds extended passages from Shipp and Bisio that each stretch the track in different directions. The pianist opens it up with percussive ideas that seem to spread the musical palette wider, while the bassist pulls it back, focusing inwardly, before Halley joins with a pointed melody taking that takes track out.
Shipp's trio plays a huge role on this album. Their playing is outstanding - they know what each other can do, but this fact does not hinder the music from sounding fresh. Shipp's acoustic piano work is electric as well, he provides just-in time scaffolding for Halley's kinetic lines and rhythmic stunts and provides his own structures. Bisio and Baker do the same, and thus while this is a infrequent grouping, it is one that really works together.
The album ends with 'The Curved Horizon' and all of the best traits of the group are present here. The track begins with at a high level of intensity and does not back down. A squiggly sax line runs into a tonal cluster-bomb from the piano as the bass line anticipates the pulse, and percussive clacks emphasize the urgency. Halley reaches the normal physical constraints of his instrument fast and pushes beyond them. A high energy ending to a great recording.
So, if this is a yearly meeting of the spirits, I hope it happens again (though we'll probably have to write off a 2020 gathering). Halley has a great rapport with Shipp, Bisio and Baker and will be nice to hear it develop even further.