I’ve been listening to Oregon-based saxophonist Rich Halley for quite a few years at this point. He’s highly regarded among the few dozen people who know his name, but seems uninterested in playing by the jazz industry’s rules: he’s not about to move to New York or Chicago, or start recording standards and ballads in an attempt to cater to anyone but himself. Like the late Fred Anderson, Halley works on his own, and on his own terms, with a few like-minded collaborators.
This is the fifth of his CDs that I’ve heard, the second by his quartet, and the first live recording. I first heard two trio discs, 2001’s Coyotes in the City and 2002’s Objects, on which he was backed by bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Dave Storrs (who released the group’s music on his Louie label). These were followed in 2005 by Mountains and Plains. In between there, though, he recorded a quartet disc, 2003’s The Blue Rims, which added cornet player Bobby Bradford to the action. After Mountains and Plains, though, nothing was heard from Halley for years. Apparently, part of the delay was due to Storrs leaving the group, because Live at the Penofin Jazz Festival features the saxophonist’s son Carson on drums, and is the first release on a new label, Pine Eagle.
The presence of Bobby Bradford, and the father-son sax-drums team-up action, may cause some listeners to think of Ornette Coleman (with whom Bradford recorded on Science Fiction and Broken Shadows), but while there’s an element of Coleman’s loose, humanist blues to Halley’s playing, his rhythmic conception is more straightforward, especially on the funky (and previously unrecorded) “Streets Below,” which is driven by an almost hip-hop beat from Carson Halley. Indeed, the drummer, possibly because he’s decades younger than anybody else on the bandstand, really drives this group, kicking them forward on a regular basis and taking an almost rock solo on the 15-minute “Grey Stones/Shards of Sky,” a medley of one song from The Blue Rims and one from Objects. The interaction between Rich Halley and Bobby Bradford is respectful; neither man ever challenges the other. Indeed, the nominal leader gives Bradford the first solo of the set, and trades short phrases with him throughout in an utterly conversational way. Toward the end of “Grey Stones/Shards of Sky,” Bradford takes a lengthy unaccompanied solo that heads into Louis Armstrong territory, rather than into ultra-free smears and sputters. When he takes his own solos, Halley occasionally gets somewhat skronky, but the blues, bop, and the melodic side of free jazz are always dominant in his playing.
This disc doesn’t have a whole lot in the way of distribution, but it does offer 40 minutes of terrific music. Let’s say you picked up the recent Mosaic Select 3CD set of Bradford’s late ’60s/early ’70s work with clarinetist John Carter—you absolutely need this. Get it from Amazon.