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Paul Flaherty : Universal Freedom

“You know what really blows my mind,” saxophonist Paul Flaherty responds to a fairly banal question of the who’s-your-favorite-soloist-to-work-with variety, “are those birds—those mockingbirds.” The remark comes as a shock, even 45 minutes into a conversation full of sudden switches, twists, and starts all delivered in Flaherty’s rapid-fire, no-nonsense manner. Thankfully, before I have a chance to respond he continues: “They are some of the greatest soloists—well, some are better than others. I really connected with one today. On my car, you push the button and it makes that little chirp when it locks—well I did it, and the bird stopped dead, then zoomed right in on it, took off on it and started soloing on it, and I kept doing it, providing a bass or background for him…”

It was a moment of clarity for me. Of course, I have been familiar with the Flaherty sound for a few years now, in many configurations on a seemingly limitless outpouring of projects for several labels and always immediately recognizable, but how to offer a unified description of such a multifarious musical rhetoric? Nature, abhorring a vacuum as is her wont, especially where critical descriptors are concerned, provided an answer. “They don’t just do these things one after another, they do them in an improvisational way. They lead from one phrase to the next, and the next…” It was the perfect summation of Flaherty’s own playing, increasingly fluid, often opaque with bright moments of absolute transparency, sometimes tinged with acute reflection or aching nostalgia, that then simply vanish. The three new discs under discussion here seem to me now to be snapshots, three reflections of Flaherty’s versatile approach to “free” music.

The bandying about of such potentially danger-fraught esotericisms as “freedom” or “spirituality” is unavoidable when confronting the career of a musician who chooses titles like “Kaivalya” and group names such as “Jumala”, both mythologically implying either names for God or the place where God lives. The notion of universal freedom, Joyce’s “frightening example of free thought”, permeates his perceptions of music, even from childhood. “First time I heard jazz on the radio it changed my whole life. I don’t even know what it was, but I dragged my parents into the living room and made them sit down and listen to it—I can’t even remember really who it was.”

Maybe it was simply jazz’s moment-to-moment communication and subsequent liberation that destroyed boundaries for him—no one better than a child to hear beneath changes to the joyful experimentation beyond—but the seed had been planted. Speaking to Flaherty also reveals not only freedom, but the honesty to lay bare the struggle for its acquisition. “When I was in my mid 20s, I kinda got scared by Coltrane, Pharaoh, and Dolphy, so I just took all my records and gave ‘em away—got ‘em all out of the house. For 12 years, I didn’t follow the scene at all, I didn’t know—I didn’t wanna know.”

Such an intuitive, fear-based sacrifice at what must have been a crucial moment of development speaks volumes to the all-inclusive nature of his playing today and to the diverse and multi-talented aggregates with which he surrounds himself. The Dim Bulb (Wet Paint) is a case in point. Ostensibly a drums-and-sax trio, the album is a roiling soundbath, suffused with tension when quiet and mindstomping at climaxes. From the first harsh invocations of “Return to the Pasture of Ants and Sweet Rapture”—one of the best titles I’ve heard so far this year—Flaherty’s moment-form flexibility renders itself blatant as his tone meanders from stridently and declamatorily multiphonic to sweetly reflective and back again, a minor motive being repeated and gradually transformed until it dissolves into chaos. A new sound intrudes over rising sax squalls and Chris Corsano’s percussive pyrotechnics, the Ayleresque exhortational moans of baritonist Steve Baczkowski, a sonic barnstormer whose slides, swoops, and shrieks beautifully complement Flaherty’s more motivic ruminations.

“Yeah, it’s his first record really—I mean apart from a CD-R,” Flaherty interjects matter-of-factly, to my amazement. “He’s great, isn’t he?” His choice of adjectives doesn’t really come close to describing the shock engendered in me when I found out that the didgeridoo I heard on the desolate opening gestures of “No Boat Will Ever Come” was actually Baczkowski’s own invention called a vibratube!  He employs similarly astounding timbres throughout the three epic tracks on offer, sometimes singing and playing in alien harmonies, sometimes separately.

The Dim Bulb offers up a sound world similar to that of the Flaherty / Corsano / Wally Shoup / Thurston Moore Leo collaboration from last year, except that here, three fill the same sonic space as four and without the benefit of electricity. It should be noted, however, that volume is far from precluding sensitivity; at the climax of “Soaking in Gravel and Shale”, the two saxes engage in a stunning modal exchange, one providing a pedal while the other flurries and skirts the perimeters of several late Trane rhetorical devices. In fact, much of the track is based on quartal modality, freeing the players even from the conventional notions of “free” jazz.

Nowhere is such liberation and freshness of approach more apparent than on the first installment of Kaivalya (Cadence Jazz). A duet with onetime David S. Ware drummer Marc Edwards, this is nothing at all like Flaherty’s work with Corsano, or with any other drummer for that matter. “Marc woulda played with Trane. If Trane was here, you can bet Marc would be right there with him,” claims Flaherty, and this disc really demonstrates the allegiance. “ Dark Desert” and “Small Doorway” gradually descend from Flaherty’s customarily high-energy exhortations to a more meditative state, culminating in “Amrita”.

The journey is slow and somewhat rocky, the landscape peppered with transient peaks of all descriptions, and Edwards’ drumming gradually emerges as something vaguely familiar, even “retro”, often sporting some 1960s Elvin Jones/Rashied Ali nostalgia in the way pattern repetition is employed. Even given all this, “Amrita” is one of the most unexpected tracks to emerge from this duo. Edwards establishes an actual “Love Supreme” Latin-tinged beat, and Flaherty, picking up immediately on the way the drums are tuned, begins to brood in, or rather around, F! “Oh, didn’t know that,” he says nonchalantly. “Well you just listen, that’s all!”

The results are gorgeously meditative, paving the way nicely for Edwards to slowly bring the proceedings back into high gear on “Pillows for Mummies”, where his free-but-ordered drumming is given prominence for the first few increasingly frenetic minutes. Apparently, such an approach to structure also flavors his approach to composition. “He’d say to me, ‘Hey Paul, I have some ideas…’ and I’d say ‘Great Marc, don’t tell ‘em to me’.” Despite such differences, the pairing works quite well given both players’ penchant for “power” communication. Edwards combines the best of Jones and Ali in his own irrepressibly strident way, every bit Flaherty’s equal in energy if less concerned with timbral subtlety than Corsano. Flaherty responds with more fourth-based motives and trills than usual, rendering a disc full of surprise and a strange retrospective longing. Lovers of more adventurous music needn’t worry though, as Kaivalya is loaded with it.

Adventure is also the best encapsulation of the Jumala Quintet’s first outing, Turtle Crossing (Clean Feed), but of a different color. Apparently, Joe McPhee’s presence was in question due to absence from the country, but his contributions to the disc are typically great. The Jumala Quintet vibe may not be to the taste of all Flaherty aficionados; in fact, the title track’s first five minutes sound as if the group was doing its best Spontaneous Music Ensemble impression. Tiny motives are laid bare, lines are aborted, the motive is passed to another player, and intense listening is the order of the day.

Flaherty sees it a bit differently. “We are a bit restrained, or polite; just a little, but in a good way I think.” This restraint allows interaction to be heard more clearly, and “Weighing of the Heart” presents a timbrally stimulating example of how unified the group vision can be, with McPhee’s pocket trumpet soaring above the interplay. The disc has more space than is usually associated with Flaherty projects—witness the opening bass-and-drums duet of “Allis Always”, a lovely series of tiny reflectively detached episodes.

Moments of irreverence, a brilliantly executed Shostakovichian trombone slide or fart here, a well-placed but off-kilter sax gliss or honk there, give the session a slightly humorous edge. It’s about time! While humor isn’t often associated with Flaherty’s music, he’s full of funny stories, all delivered in that slightly prickly New England bark. After all, what else would one logically expect from a guy who plays car-lock while a mockingbird solos over it? It’s refreshing to hear such concerns enter the performance of what is otherwise some of the most profound music I’ve had the privilege to experience from a still under-discussed artist.