Guitarist Mary Halvorson makes following her career a challenge and a joy. Pinning down her sound remains impossible as she develops her work, shifting between solo albums and octets and her inimitable trio Thumbscrew. She studies harmonics, then rhythms, then intersections of instruments; she plays new jazz and then noise-rock; her tone stays consistent, but her musical messages morph as quickly as they can be deciphered. Maybe that makes her the code girl of her new album, or maybe that’s unrelated. On
Code Girl the disc, she offers a further twist, building her songs off her poetry and highlighting vocals (performed by Amirtha Kidambi). The new explorations offer new challenges in composition and performance, with as much encryption as revelation.
The sounds aren’t unfamiliar. A minute or so into second track “Possibility of Lightning”, Halvorson’s guitar matches Kidambi’s melody before moving into its own snaky line, eventually reveling in its rock influences. That confluence of styles put toward a sound that can be both melodic and not, pretty but a bit abrasive marks one of the keys of Halvorson’s work. In this case, the piece resolves itself only by yielding to Kidambi’s singing. The guitar and vocals remain in conversation, the song oddly bright and open despite the lyrics examining a dying wife.
Kidambi – a singer classically trained, steeped in South Indian music, and influenced by jazz – breaks out here. Her singing isn’t easy, but it’s more accessible than her work on the Elder Ones’
Holy Science from a couple years ago. Her approach tends toward the abstract; she fits into the quintet as an instrument foremost. At the same time, her ability to convey the lyrical content remains. On “Pretty Mountain”, she offers up a moment early on that suggests she could be in a musical, but she pulls it back into something more difficult as the song takes a more defeated tone.
That withdrawal reveals both Halvorson’s compositional skills and her ensemble’s skill. As Kidambi sinks, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire takes over, chopping up the smoothness of the song’s emotional decline, his playing quick, but dark. On “And”, his Blue Note sensibility comes through, but his attempts to swing are oddly undercut by bandmates unwilling to go somewhere straightforward. Drummer and frequent Halvorson collaborator Tomas Fujiwara hints that he’ll tag along, but it’s all misdirection. The piece, a mental lapse induced by the words “evil” and “pure”, gets weirder and weirder. Fujiwara marshals a few rolls as Halvorson spaces out.
Both Kidambi and Akinmusire are a bit of a surprise (though they turn out to be wonderful fits for the work), but Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek are naturals, given not only their work in Thumbscrew but also their frequent playing together in each other’s groups. Fujiwara’s nuanced playing prevents pieces from settling anywhere comfortable. “Off the Record” could almost fall into a traditional jazz mode, and Halvorson teases it. Fujiwara veers from a potential swing groove just enough that the track stays restless. Likewise, Formanek sticks to a sensible line when the song needs a firmer anchor, but he’s able to go to unlikely places. On “Thunderhead”, his little flurry a minute in helps propel the song over its first hump, but its the variation in his steady, mostly beat-matching playing that helps change the color of the piece as it shifts. Halvorson’s lines stay clean until they don’t, Fujiwara plays with anxiousness, and Akinmusire comes in with a part that both answers Halvorson and builds on Formanek’s tones.
If the music seeks never to rest, Halvorson’s lyrics remain ambiguous enough to do that same. She writes in “Deepest Similar” that her “understanding was not available”. In musical terms, “my I have hid the score well / I may develop slowly if you want.” What we know and are takes shape only over time, and we may kid ourselves if we think that growth is all fully intentional. The form and structures sometimes remain hidden, and sometimes are simply looser than others.
Code Girl offers continual play and deliberate uncertainty. With strong compositions delivered by an excellent ensemble, the album’s puzzles remain a treat to continually almost crack.