Saxophonist Bill McHenry’s “Ghosts of the Sun”

Saxophonist Bill McHenry has spent a career quietly distinguishing himself as a warm and inventive saxophonist, a composer of carefully crafted, yet intuitive sounding originals, and a democratic bandleader. “Ghosts of the Sun” captures his celebrated quartet, with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Reid Anderson, and the late, great drummer Paul Motian, at the height of their creative powers in late 2006 — blurring the lines where composition and improvisation meet with an unassuming and effortless intensity that few groups achieve.

McHenry’s vibratoless tenor introduces the plaintive theme to Ms. Polley, the album’s ethereally beautiful opener, with unadorned simplicity. Motian is right there with him, delivering light ride cymbal taps while marking a fluxing time feel with a swishing hi-hat and a quietly accented snare commentary that bobs and weaves around Anderson’s earthy bass tones, and Monder’s dreamy chord colors. The performance transitions almost imperceptibly from one composed or improvised idea to another with a stop-and-start feel that manages to enhance the uninterrupted fluid motion that the band strives for. During the opening and closing melody statements, McHenry, Monder and Anderson pause frequently in mid-flight — letting a sustained note decay — before Motian restlessly sets the ball in motion with a quietly propulsive phrase.

McHenry has the estimable distinction of being known as much for what he doesn’t play as for what he does, and the nine originals on “Ghosts of the Sun” reveal him at his restrained best. A focus on tonal purity and emotional precision mark his work on the delicate title track, along with the atmospherically melancholic Lost Song, standing in, seemingly, for the superfluous runs and technical displays that would be all too easy for McHenry to employ. Even on tour de force pieces like La Fuerza and Roses II that feature athletic runs and fiery growls, it’s hard not to get the sense that McHenry is parceling out his doses of gutteral catharsis — parsing and editing his improvised phrases, and waiting for just the right moment to unleash a torrent.

His partners share his quick wits and knack for episodic invention, along with a devotion to unadorned melody. On Little One, McHenry delivers the straight eighth note melody in a deliberately rigid manner, contrasting with Monder, whose initial unison line grows into a series of sweeping arcs as the leader continues playing variations on the melodic theme underneath. Even at its most free-associative, this emphasis on melodic invention is ever present. A little more than a minute into William III, McHenry banishes all semblance traditional harmony and static rhythm with a blistering pentatonic line that is followed by a probing, emotive solo that owes more than a little debt to harmolodics, and sets the stage for Monder’s blistering, distorted guitar.

A print version of this article appeared in the March 2012 edition of The New York City Jazz Record.
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