Mary Halvorson’s Vivid Illusionary Sea: One of 2013’s Best Albums
One night at Issue Project Room [wild guess], Anthony Braxton took guitarist Mary Halvorson aside. “You know, you should write more for large ensemble,” he told her. And she did. Her latest Firehouse 12 release with her all-star septet – Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto sax, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor sax, Jacob Garchik on trombone, John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums – is a strong contender for best jazz album of 2013. She’s leading a series of ensembles at the Stone for a week starting August 13 with sets at 8 and 10 PM. It’s a great opportunity to see one of the most individualistic and intelligent composers in jazz – who’s also an equally individualistic, intelligent player – for relatively cheap in a comfortably intimate room.
Google Halvorson and you may get the impression that she’s somebody at the fringe of jazz, which isn’t true at all. Cutting-edge as her music is, it’s extremely accessible. Here she keeps a group of extremely strong personalities on task throughout a collection of lush but biting compositions, all but the concluding track hers. Smith’s drumming in particular is fantastic – it’s amazing how straightforwardly he plays these tunes while coloring them with his signature, irrepressible, playful wit.
The title track deftly works a circular hook into shifting shades, rising and falling, Finlayson leading the way early on, alternating voices and then Halvorson adding a hint of plinky unease before the arrangement fades down elegantly with dissociative echo effects. Complex yet memorable and not a little suspenseful, it sets the stage. Smiles of Great Men offers low-key sarcasm, a sense that not all is as it should be growing from Halvorson and Hebert’s chordal teamwork to a steady horn-driven crescendo, Halvorson bobbing and weaving uneasily and allusively toward a steely modality. Irabagon steps out of character to provide a sense of calm and then is himself as he veers away, the rhythm section holding it together as the horns chatter.
The richly vivid tableau Red Sky Still Sea builds from skeletal to lustrous, Halvorson’s eerily gorgeous solo elevating to a majestic sway and then the band backs away, Finlayson sailing it to a flamenco-tinged guitar-bass part. Halvorson’s gentle tremolo-picking counterintuitively brings it down to a mutedly dancing Hebert solo – as Finlayson quietly flutters, is this the seaside bugs coming out at night? The sarcasm returns with Four Pages of Robots, essentially a one-chord jam, its coldly mechanical cheer lit up by deft handoffs all around, Irabagon’s faux-dramatics, Garchik echoing Finlayson’s solo on the previous track, Halvorson back in the mix but wailing with a snarling, skronky, noisy attack that finally takes it out with a bang. That’s where she stays through pretty much the whole album: she always leaves you wanting more.
She evokes Steve Ulrich via creepy, tensely reverbtoned lines painting it flat black and then eventually spiraling down to flamenco allusions on Fourth Dimensional Confession, Smith’s low-key cool anchoring a moodily pulsing backdrop: it might be the album’s best track. Another killer cut is Butterfly Orbit with its tango allusions, sharp-fanged guitar hooks, Halvorson using an envelope pedal for an Elliott Sharp-like tone. A squirrelly alto-and-drums duel goes machinegunning and then the whole thing completely falls apart, Halvorson leading the way, keening and burning as Hebert pulls everybody away from the flames. The album closes with a take of Philip Catherine’s Nairam, its long crescendo evocative of the Ravel Bolero, Halvorson in echoey, pensively atmospheric mode as the clave kicks in and then recedes. This is a great late-night album, ominous yet jeweled with shifts in mood, tempo and dynamics – and not a little dry wit – to keep you awake and on edge.
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