Bill McHenry, Ghosts of the Sun

Peter Margasak

By Peter Margasak

on 11.22.11 in Reviews

The stunning performances captured on Ghosts of the Sun were recorded five years ago at the same sessions that produced the equally superb Roses, from 2007. These nine pieces are not leftover dregs. Tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry is one of the most exciting and deceptively progressive musicians in jazz, a guy who subverts familiar post-bop forms and sounds to engage in riveting, highly rigorous improvisation flush with gorgeous, zigzagging melodies. He’s got excellent company here, working with fellow bandleaders who’ve been his collaborators for years — the sublime veteran drummer Paul Motian, Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson, and electric guitarist Ben Monder.

An exciting and deceptively progressive jazz musician in great company

The opening track “Ms. Polley” warmly gets things underway on a rubato-feel ballad with a pretty but pensive melody, but a few minutes into the piece the band kind of pulls the rug out from under itself; McHenry drops out, Motian ratchets up his wonderful attack, with a kind of jagged march, Anderson gently takes the lead with a subdued improvisation, and Monder casts an ominous glow with enveloping yet tamped-down atmospherics. As a listener, it feels as if you’re suddenly lost in a new world of sound that’s both jarring and comforting. “La Fuerza” raises the heat considerably, with McHenry deploying some effective upper register harmonics and sly rhythmic ferocity, yet the melody is just as sanguine and sophisticated as the most delicate compositions here. Melody is McHenry’s greatest gift, and rather than getting wrapped up in fancy harmony or convoluted structures, he trusts in elegant lines, weaving into the group’s lush yet tactile sound like he was operating a loom, from the stark, angular “William III” — on which Monder unleashes some stinging, effects-drenched noise — to the heart-rending “Lost Song.”