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Mark O'Leary - Self Luminous & Chamber Trio

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Artist: Mark O'Leary

Album: Self Luminous & Chamber Trio

Label: Leo

Review date: Apr. 22, 2005

A transplanted Irishman in New York, guitarist Mark O’Leary has been active in improvised music since the late '80s. He’s emblematic of the Sideman Syndrome, wherein a musician opts for more plentiful supportive roles in lieu of the elusive leadership seat. Past employers have included a short list of estimable names, including Paul Bley, Jack DeJohnette and Thomasz Stanko. Two recent releases on the Leo label suggest that his switch to the helm was long overdue.

Each album features O’Leary in the company of violist Mat Maneri. Their partnership is one of strong rapport. O’Leary is in some ways an even better confrere than Maneri’s old friend, Joe Morris. Both plectrists favor variable speed picking coupled to an idiosyncratic rhythmic sense, but O’Leary more closely matches Maneri’s penchant for abstruse filament-building and morose picayunishness. His facility with volume pedal and a tendency to taper and torque notes in gravity-nullifying ways also mirrors the violist’s adroitness in twisting tonal shapes to his whims. Both men are versed in the argot of microtonal smears and glacial gradations of Maneri’s father, Joe.

Two of Maneri’s longtime colleagues lend their talents in completing the two trio configurations. Randy Peterson is the ideal drummer for the sort of exacting interplay on Self Luminous. His many years spent in Maneri’s company manifest in a near-telepathic anticipatory coding of oblique beats. Fluent sprays of snare, cymbal and errant tom-tom patter repeatedly pepper the action, making prediction of Peterson’s next move nigh impossible. The trio’s patient attention to detail and pacing recalls the stop-motion filmmaking favored by Ray Harryhausen, an illusory sense of motion achieved through a flipbook succession of snapshot frames. Sometimes the cycles speed up - as during the middle section of “No Code” when scything sharp-toothed bow strokes slice into a crenellated cascade of arpeggios - but a canopy of structure and logic remains.

Much of the music is at once delicate and bustling, reeling forth in a lattice-like labyrinth of braiding filigrees patterns. There’s no shortage of lyricism, either. O’Leary in particular keeps a close tab on melodic concerns, shaping lush swathes on “Purple People” that permeate into the cracks in the elusive pulse of Peterson’s barely-there percussion. Points arise in the trio’s helium-light conversation where the principals threaten to float clean away from each other, but Peterson’s tethering traps usually manage to hook the music back to terrestrial proximity.

O’Leary’s blurring plectrum produces a profusion of notes, but even in their most populous numbers they never seem needlessly prolix. His plush flanging patterns on “What’s Your Name Again?” and the oddly downcast “Sweet” almost sound like tones birthed from a vintage synth console. “Lilt” and “Smear” showcase the guitarist’s fusion side as distortion and treble conspire in lending a serrated shimmer to his skittering scalar lines. The accelerant shift on the first of the two tracks reanimates Peterson from a semi-slumber with a push of choppy, frothing rhythm. The ensuing fulmination is the closest the trio comes to baldly rocking out. “Alchemix” works as the disc’s full-circle coda, the trio once again trafficking in subdued, slightly-fevered persiflage.

The presence of Matthew Shipp’s piano on Chamber Trio in place of Peterson’s drum kit further tugs the dynamic in the direction of the lyrical and melodic. Lines are longer, the motivic development more elongated and continuous. The most engrossing interplay occurs between O’Leary and Maneri. Shipp often plays “second fiddle” interjecting chordal commentary from a slightly recessed position. The result is some of the most measured and restrained playing from the pianist heard in a long while. “Jaunt” strolls outward in a layered weave of overlapping patterns. Shipp’s tensile fingers stamp out revolving chords, while Maneri blends legato bowing with spidery string plucks, wringing the most of his upper octave range. O’Leary is a web of tonal warbles, his string pitch varying in width like toothpaste squeezed at variable pressure through a tube. The track resolves, tension and release wrapped loosely in a soporific patina.

“Simple Simon” wakes things up with another nod to fusion. O’Leary dips his strings in brittle, but still tempered distortion, his rampant arpeggios colliding with Maneri’s sliding glisses as Shipp tinkles and pecks away in the backdrop. A snail’s pace excursion bathed in microtonal shifts and gestures, “Rest” advances in tiny increments. O’Leary’s strings evince a milky liquidity contrasting with Maneri’s sharper articulations. Shipp again adopts the role of scenery filler, padding in the cracks with swatches of chordal color.

The pianist turns up the pedal-dampened plinking and rumbling on “I Am Not the Only One.” O’Leary’s distortion pedal bolsters a spate of racing fret runs as Maneri slices fervidly beneath. Despite the energy and ammunition expended through the collective improvisations the piece still suggests an odd feeling of stasis, as if the players were running to stand still. With “St. Ives,” O’Leary jockeys between his Jekyll and Hyde personas, shifting from auroral single notes to acid-tipped riffing and back again. Maneri worries his strings with a similar mix of arabesque arco and needlepoint pizzicato. For his part, Shipp just stomps and stabs or just plain sits out. The set caps off with “Kurts Park,” another chess-game improv, with each man advancing cautiously, in keen awareness of his colleagues’ locations. O’Leary’s dancing echo-laced figures once again fit key-to-lock with Maneri’s mercurial bow and finger work. Shipp stamps out lumbering block chords from the sideline, the odd man out again.

Opportunities as a leader may have been late in arriving to O’Leary’s doorstep, but this pair of platters makes any time lost seem immaterial. Both discs are well worth hearing, though the date with Peterson garners the edge.

By Derek Taylor

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