Fictionary, Mark Helias (GMR, 1998)
This is a rather intriguing program, taken from a pair of Mark Helias Quartet performances at European festivals. Bassist Helias is an underrated composer, and, of his seven originals, the lyrical "Looking Up From Heaven" is one that deserves to be covered by others. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin's forceful flights contrast well with violinist Mark Feldman's more grounded (but no less explorative) improvisations. The drummers (Mike Sarin is on four numbers, while Tom Rainey is on the other three) are supportive and stimulating. The music overall has strong melodies and plots, with the freer sections being logical outgrowths of the themes. Although two of the seven selections ("Hands Down" and "Area 51") are over ten minutes long, none of the performances overstay their welcome, and some are quite concise. The blend between the instruments (particularly the violin and the tenor) is quite appealing, and the music is never
predictable, yet is ultimately logical. A continually fascinating set of surprising music. ~ Scott Yanow, All-Music Guide
Mark Helias "Fictionary" | GM Recordings
Highly regarded bassist Mark Helias is also a fine composer and bandleader. His latest effort "Fictionary" is a live recording featuring Mark Feldman; violin, Ellery Eskelin; sax, Mike Sarin and Tom Rainey on drums. This cd captures performances from Helias' unit during the 1995 Groningen and 1996 Nijmegen jazz festivals. The interplay is magnificent. Helias compositions are perfect vehicles for extroadinary improv between violinist Feldman and the astounding Eskelin on tenor sax. The pace varies from tune to tune but the key ingredients here are the conveyance of fresh ideas coupled with mind boggling technique and captivating improvisation.
Helias' apprenticeship with Gerry Hemmingway, Ray Anderson, Anthony Braxton and numerous other jazz luminaries has caught the attention of most serious jazz afficionados; however, he has released a string of fine solo recordings over the years, this being among his best. Helias' while possessing monterous chops is equally adept at employing space and color. His compositions here are definitive pieces which at times appear to be angular and complex; however, he maintains strong sensibilities of swing. Helias' gives Eskelin and Feldman room to breath fire. They dart through these compositions with explosive forays into jazz improvisation mania ! The interplay is a thing of beauty. The dialogue inherent in this band suggests that they were pulling out all the stops yet having tons of fun. Tom Rainey sits behind the drum kit on Area 51; thus, Mike Sarin appears on all other tracks. Honorable mention to both drummers for stellar support. The recording itself is a sonic delight which enhances the overall feel of the live dates. This cd ranks among 1998's best. I would also highly recommend this cd to the student of jazz improvisation and composition.
Tracks: The Comb Over; Looking Up From Heaven; Hands Down; Fictionary; Area 51; Douglas Fir; Haymaker
~ Glenn Astarita Fictionary
Mark Helias | GM
A creative composer and bassist, Mark Helias gathers familiar harmonies and fresh melodies, combines them with checkered rhythms, and produces music guaranteed to hold your interest. Fictionary was recorded at performances in the Netherlands for the Groningen Jazz Festival and the Nijmegen Music Meeting in 1995 and '96, respectively. The quartet, which combines Ellery Eskelin's tenor saxophone with Mark Feldman's violin, Helias' bass, and drums, is aptly named Attack The Future. Tom Rainey was the drummer for the 1995 background information at : www.markhelias.com Each of these compositions are by Helias, who slides and bends notes on his bass to express melodies that linger and form pleasant group interaction. "Fictionary" is a slow dramatic piece that emphasizes the artists' interplay. Rainey's percussion marks are syncopated and varied enough to keep the ensemble loose while the others maintain a lyrical team approach. "Area 51" incorporates space and fresh creative expression, while "Douglas Fir" wafts gently with stoic charm. At times the creativity boils over into loud rants, but Helias' walking bass is always there to return a sense of swing and normalcy. The gentle ballad "Looking Up From Heaven" includes lyrical solo work from Helias and Feldman. Their stringed instruments are expressive and infer a Third Stream connection. "Hands Down" is a lively dance number from the European tradition that allows time for Eskelin and Feldman to stretch out. The saxophonist pushes the virtuoso-like melodies. The quartet offers a fusion of dramatic European dance music with creative improvisation. Highly recommended.
~ Jim Santella
Fictionary - GM3037
Mark Helias had a different idea of how to utilize Eskelin’s sound on this live quartet disk. Pairing Eskelin with violinist Mark Feldman in the front line, Helias and company glide through the program, the leader soloing impressively with deep tones on Looking Up From Heaven. Eskelin tears it up on the propulsive Hands Down, Helias swinging hard with drummer Mike Sarin’s New Orleans syncopation a la Ed Blackwell. Feldman solos aggressively with a rich tone. His interaction with Eskelin and drummer Tom Rainey show the quartet familiar enough with each other to climb out on a limb reaching creative conclusions.
Steve Vickery, Coda Magazine June, 1999
"Fictionary" (GM) ***
Tired of off-the-rack recycled bebop? Try these live recordings by bassist Mark Helias on for size. With a pianoless quartet of young veterans -- including a striking front line of tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and violinist Mark Feldman -- the band weaves through left-leaning original material with agile wit and off-the-cuff authority. The shadow of Ornette Coleman looms large, especially in the sing-songy swing of "The Comb Over," the phrase-by-phrase rubato stroll through "Area 51" and the general absence of recurring chord cycles. Yet the players speak individually and collectively in their own voices, especially the underrated Eskelin.
By Mark Stryker, Free Press music critic
Spectator Online Best of 98
JAZZ DISCS I
By Stan Dick
6. Fictionary, Mark Helias (GMR). Bassist Helias leads a quartet that meshes the tenor saxophone of Ellery Eskelin and violin of
Mark Feldman. The players each have unique musical sensibilities, embracing a range from unsentimental lyricism to probing explorations. Intriguing compositions and voicings.
Bassist Mark Helias may one day find his engaging ensemble sound emulated by bandleaders. Bringing together violin and tenor saxophone with bass and drums, Helias presents a band sound that is both uncommon and sensually appealing. the live recording, Fictionary (GM Recordings), finds Helias in charge of two editions of his ensemble: the tracks from 1995 feature drummer Tom Rainey, the 1996 tracks, drummer Mike Sarin. Constant presences, violinist Mark Feldman and tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, are purposeful, full toned improvisers. Feldman come on like he’s the horn man, while Eskelin balances open-ended explorations with logically structured lines. On the lovely ballad, “Looking Up From Heaven”, both players expose their tenderest tendencies, producing lyrical solos that take on piercing expressive weight , free of the couching harmonic support of, say, piano or guitar. If Feldman and Eskelin naturally command attention, Helias and his drummers are never far from the action. In fact, spend a few listens with your ears trained to Helias’ massive swing, contrapuntal invention, and tonal beauty: these are rewards in and of themselves. Sarin and Rainey, both strikingly subtle, intelligent percussionists, are equally impressive. Helias’ music--painstakingly precise in organization, yet spontaneous in execution -- makes use of the best of modern post-free-jazz possibilities.
The Green Mountain Jazz Messenger
Mark Helias may not be the first name that comes to mind during a discussion of creative improvisers, but perhaps that’s due more to his instrument of choice rather than to his significance within the jazz world. Other than Charlie Haden and Dave Holland, both of whom have shifted toward the mainstream in recent years, there are precious few bassists working on the cutting edge who receive much attention. Not to pigeonhole Mr. Helias, whose background includes a healthy dose of funk playing and writing, most notably as co-conspirator with Ray Anderson in the Slickaphonics during the 1980’s.
Fictionary, Helias’ seventh recording as a leader, is his first live outing. The selections have been culled from two appearances at festivals in the Netherlands during 1995 and 1996. The bassist is the writer of all seven compositions, each of which merits repeated listening, and each of which benefits from outstanding musicianship. The worldbeat directions which Helias explored on his last studio date, Loopin’ the Cool, are again in evidence, especially on “Hands Down” with its Mediterranean flavor -- and on “Haymaker,” a delightful melding of the aforementioned funk with Middle-Eastern influences. The latter is highlighted by an astounding tenor sax/violin polyphonic dialogue, which continues unabated for most of the songs seven minutes.
The various musical influences revealed here do not come across as attempts to be trendy; it is clear that Helias has catholic tastes, and his compositions naturally reflect that broad palate. Take “Looking up from Heaven”, for instance. This lovely ballad has all the makings of a jazz standard, save perhaps a set of lyrics. The title selection, on the other hand, deftly combines freedom and structure, recalling contemporary classical music and, alternately, free jazz. Apprenticeship with bands led by similarly-inclined mentors such as Edward Blackwell, Anthony Braxton and Dewey Redman no doubt had an impact on the bassist-as -young-man.
Helias has a knack for choosing bandmates who share his wide-angle-lens approach to music. Each of the participants on this recording possesses prodigious technique; more importantly, each has found his own voice. Ellery Eskelin and Mark Feldman are, without a doubt, two of the best players in jazz on their respective instruments; tenor sax and violin. For confirmation of their originality and prowess pay special attention to their solos on “Hands Down” which, in both cases, build from a whisper to a scream. Eskelin has been collaboration with Helias for several years, and is also a member of the bassist’s Open Loose, along with drummer Tom Rainey. Rainey’s distinctive percussion work is featured on three Fictionary cuts; Mike Sarin, best known for his work in the Thomas Chapin Trio, provides the rhythmic juice elsewhere.
Mention must be made of the liner notes on this CD, which were written by the bandleader himself. Avoiding the formulaic song-by-song account and overblown accolades common to such writing, Helias instead shares his perceptions regarding the nature of live recordings. This makes for fascinating reading and provides us with a deeper understanding of the artist’s concepts. Although the bassist has lived in New York City for many years, he has ties to New England, having earned a masters degree in music from Yale University in 1976. During the 70’s Helias was a part of the unusually fertile creative improvised music scene that existed in Connecticut at the time. Leo Smith, Anthony Davis and Jay Hoggard are among the many musicians who comprised that loose-knit coalition, much of it centered around activities at Wesleyan University in Middletown an Yale in New Haven. For more information about Fictionary and other Mark Helias recordings an concert dates, visit his Home Page at www.markhelias.com.
Chuck Obuchowski Signal To Noise
Much like a live jazz album fills a singular void between studio release and live performance, Mark Helias' intense and almost indescribable bass playing on his latest live release Fictionary exists on level reserved for the elite of new music bassists today. Avant-garde and experimental without the percussiveness of a Mark Dresser or a Chris Wood, Helias' intensity and never-ending deviations through constantly shifting meters and styles within each piece energizes both the listener, and more importantly the fine cast of musicians he has chosen to surround himself with.
With Mark Feldman on violin and Ellery Eskelin on tenor sax, this release documents two dates from Dutch jazz festivals in 1995 and 1996. Tunes like "The Comb Over" and "Hands Down", with the exciting Mike Sarin on drums, capture four musicians striving to push the boundaries of small group improvisation. The unison chemistry between Feldman and Eskelin is as captivating as their soloing styles are diverse and exciting. Sarin, particularly on these tracks and the closer "Haymaker", brings the drum kit on equal footing with the other instruments during extraordinary moments of collective improvisation. On the three tunes from 1995 with Tom Rainey on drums, the band takes a marginally less straight ahead tack, and focuses on a more loosely based group improvisational vibe which consists of greater dynamic range and a wider variety of sounds from their instruments. Rainey accentuates thesubtleties of the drums with brushes, while also reserving the right to bust a tune wide open with a mad percussive dash. The interplay between Helias and Eskelin in the opening minutes of "Area 51" is quietly experimental, building slowly into an exciting and almost groovy double-time second half.
Amongst all his sublime compositions, the significance of Helias' bass cannot be overstated. He leads the musicians into flips and rolls, darting around from here to there with a seemingly effortless style which offers surprises around every turn in spite of the fact he is obviously playing something new all the time. His playing reaches out and grabs the listener while evoking the best out of the musicians around him.
While Helias concedes in the liner notes that live albums cannot completely represent the experience of a live performance, the best live albums offer invaluable windows into the creative spirit of musicians listeners may never have the opportunity to witness first hand. This new music time capsule represents two amazing nights of music which can now be heard in the musicians' homeland where this sort of improvisation is all too rare.