[11 January 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
In spite of the par-exceeding musicianship of Mary Halvorson and her band, I can’t help but feel that her music exists for frosty, intellectual reasons rather than warm, artistic ones. Maybe you just have to be properly disaffected in order to plug into New York’s downtown avant-garde scene, because Halvorson’s quintet scarcely sounds natural or genuine on Saturn Sings. This is the new jazz-guitar combo in action, sprinting away from the ghosts of Wes Montgomery past in search of a new language. On paper, it’s attractive. In many attempts by other artists, it has been successful. In Halvorson’s hands, it’s so uncomfortably in love with its own disconnect and inaccessibility that you have to wonder if the writers at All About Jazz just hand out gold stars and chocolate bars all day long.
The album is supposed to represent the reflective time in one’s life when Saturn’s position in the sky announces the confusions of turning 30 years old (astrology…*groan*). It appears that when Halvorson steps back to reflect on her life, it compels her to play lots of fast notes while periodically stepping on her pitch shifter. Not only does it feel like her virtuosity is constantly being misplaced, but the horns and the rhythm section (or at least the parts they are being asked to play) lack an ability to mesh. In the absence of a strong first impression, “Leak Over Six Five (No. 14)” is compositionally happy enough to just be inconsequentially anchorless.
The members of her band, at least as soloists, do not sound like wasted talent. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon in particular sounds like he was properly reared to balance his noise with control while taking leads. Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson often takes the road more tonal, while getting overshadowed by his boss during his own solo, like on “Mile High Like (No. 16)”. The following track, “Moon Traps in Seven Rings (No. 17)”, guns for radical juxtaposition as drummer Ches Smith and Halvorson spray machine gun racket overtop a theme played by Irabagon and Finlayson. Seven minutes in, she hits the distortion pedal. In the gauge of cleverness, this ranks equal with kicking sand into someone’s face.
Most of these pieces put up a impenetrable pretense from the start—one vacuous note followed by another sounding more like a search for a melody rather than a melody. With the exception of the opening minute of “Sea Seizure (No. 19)”, these are Teflon tunes. The utilization of noise in Saturn Sings is less a form of human expression than it is a desperate holler to please, please, please pay attention. Guitar histrionics come and go, too often, for no other purpose than to brand the music as “avant-garde”. Its length, ten tracks at 66 minutes, feels more out of want than necessity. Anthony Braxton and Yusef Lateef are name-dropped in the liner notes, and various press material goes out of its way to say that the album’s harmonies are inspired by Sam Cooke and Dmitri Shostakovich. Really. This does no one any real favors unless they wanted to play a rousing game of spot-that-esoteric-influence, and that’s about as inspiring and rewarding as Saturn Sings gets.