Mary Halvorson
Photo: Nonesuch Records

Mary Halvorson’s ‘Cloudward’ Is a Sophisticated Ensemble Composition

Mary Halvorson’s Cloudward is a shimmering, deeply satisfying example of a jazz sextet firing on all cylinders. Prepare to be astonished.

Mary Halvorson
19 January 2024

Mary Halvorson is a musician who can thrive in multiple environments. Over the years, she’s recorded albums in the trio format (Dragon’s Head), in a small ensemble with vocals (Code Girl), a standards album for solo guitar (Meltframe), and even guitar with string quartet (Belladonna). Her new album, Cloudward, doesn’t necessarily see her breaking new ground – it’s the second album she’s recorded with this sextet – but from a compositional and improvisational standpoint, it sees her continuing to hone and perfect her artistic excellence.

To put it in overly simplistic terms, Cloudward could be interpreted as something of a sequel to Amaryllis, the album she wrote in 2020 during the thick of the pandemic and released in 2022 with the sextet that would take that album’s title as its band name: Patricia Brennan on vibraphone, Nick Dunston on bass, Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Jacob Garchik on trombone and Adam O’Farrill on trumpet (as well as Halvorson on guitar, naturally). According to Halvorson in the press materials, Cloudward was written in 2022, “when things started moving forward. Life felt like a creaky machine starting up again. Air travel, however chaotic, had resumed, and we were once again cloudward.” As a result, Mary Halvorson felt a deep sense of optimism working on this album.

That optimism seems palpable on Cloudward – even in its more foreboding, atonal moments, there is a warmth. The compositions convey a sense of adventure, and whenever a musician takes a solo – and there’s plenty of soloing here – they’re given a lot of rope, resulting in skilled, freewheeling performances that are impressive on a technical level but also a lot of fun to listen to.

The measured notes that kick off the first track, “The Gate”, give way to an easy sense of cohabitation between the players before the first solo begins, courtesy of Garchik on the trombone. Brennan’s vibes are a significant presence on this track and all over the album, a welcome sound considering the instrument isn’t often used in these ensembles. When the horns play complex passages in unison, it’s highly reminiscent of Frank Zappa‘s early 1970s excursions into jazz fusion, dense but organic.

On much of Cloudward, Mary Halvorson meshes beautifully with the ensemble without much of the spotlight on her. But on “The Tower”, her spiky, experimental style is front and center in the first part of the track, before the rest of the ensemble join in a ballad tempo, with sparse composed lines mixing with inspired improvisation (Brennan’s vibes solo is particularly delightful). There’s a sense of mystery to “Unscrolling”, with Fukiwara’s percussion and Dunston’s bowed bass giving the track a dark, exotic flair.

Halvorson also shines on the guitar-heavy “Desiderata”, with a loose, swaggering rock beat giving way to majestic horn figures before a noisy, distorted, effects-heavy guitar solo makes up the track’s centerpiece. It seems like something of a tribute to Miles Davis‘ fusion experiments, placing rock elements in a jazz atmosphere, as if to say, “It all belongs here.”  

Mary Halvorson’s Nonesuch label-mate Laurie Anderson even appears on “Incarnadine” (presumably on violin – the credits don’t make that clear), a track that revels in a free, unmoored oasis of atonality. The instruments come and go, sustained and clipped, as percussion clatters away and notes are left hanging. This is followed by a true stylistic flip side: “Tailhead” is Fukiwara’s moment to shine, with sizzling, heavily syncopated drumming guiding the ensemble through a knotty yet lyrical interplay, highlighted by another solo from Garchik.

Cloudward closes with “Ultramarine”, initially a showcase for Dunston’s dizzying, manic bass lines before Halvorson joins in, and once Fujiwara comes along, there’s a weird, unsettling bluesy trio feel, a bit dark but also heavily melodic. The horns bring in a mood that’s slightly funereal, but O’Farrill’s bright trumpet solo seems to complete the sequence. All of the intertwined melodies and melding of styles on this track seem to exemplify Mary Halvorson’s Amaryllis template: bringing together a group of musicians to interpret complex compositional passages but also given free reign to solo as they see fit. Cloudward is a shimmering, deeply satisfying example of a jazz sextet firing on all cylinders. Prepare to be astonished.

RATING 9 / 10