The quirky guitarist expands her septet to include pedal steel and creates landscapes that push the players to real invention.
Mary Halvorson, she of the immediately identifiable, idiosyncratic guitar sound and style, continues to be a restless, quirky, compelling figure in the new jazz scene. She records widely, as a leader and with others, and her two quintet recordings (Saturn Sings (2010) and Bending Bridges (2012) are among my favorites of the last 15 years). The quintet features Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon’s alto saxophone, and the rhythm section of John Hebert, bass, and Ches Smith, drums — and it gave a more orchestral form to Halvorson’s knack for tuneful freedom. In 2012 she also recorded Illusionary Sea using a septet that expanded her quintet with the addition of Jacob Garchik on trombone and Ingrid Laubrock on tenor sax.
Away With You makes that band bigger by one, bringing in a second guitarist in Susan Alcorn on pedal steel, setting up a wholly new dynamic in the rhythm section. Halvorson’s acoustic/electric edge contrasts with Acorn’s creamy wedge of bendable sound. “The Absolute Almost (No. 52)” begins right there, with Alcorn starting a slow, open, Frisellian melody while Halvorson creeps in beneath her, shimmering, percussing, bending notes in her way until they find themselves in an eerie unison above Hebert’s bass. The horns and percussion enter about five minutes in using a syncopated fanfare that leaves the guitars in a wild, undulating siren-call on the bottom, their tonal and rhythmic contrast are still central.
This dynamic of contrasts and comings together is the highlight of Away with You. “Sword Barrel (No. 58)” operates in a similar way, with the composition contrasting the sound of the two guitars as they work in a productive rub with the horns as they play counterpoint. Laubrock’s solo, initially, rides over the guitars, which build things to a first climax, and then she plays over just the rhythm section before the whole band comes in for a swirling collective improvisation. The full effect is that of a highly organized landscape that nevertheless allows its inhabitants to roam freely. It establishes its fascination through design and then, secondarily, in how the structure lets you veer off into discovery.
The music on Away with You sits at an interesting place in the “new jazz” of the last 15 years. Halvorson came up under the influence of Anthony Braxton during her time at Wesleyan University, and her music carries some of his stamp. Unlike another prominent strain of new jazz, this music is rarely funky or under the influence of rock, soul, or hip-hop. It “grooves”, I suppose, but in a formal way that has the mitts of classical music on it, much as Braxton’s bands would get into propulsive rhythms without any of the backbeats that we associate with Ray Charles or Charlie Mingus. Halvorson’s strain of new jazz uses complex rhythms quite often, but they are not the skittering breakbeat rhythms that Damion Reid or Chris Dave have brought to projects by Steve Lehman or Robert Glasper. Neither are they rocked out jazz grooves we often hear from “jazz" drummer Allison Miller.
What, then, is going on in the DNA of this groove? The title track “Away with You (No. 55)” is wonderful and highly rhythmic. Built initially on a simple rising-and-falling arpeggio from Halvorson, it uses thudding accents that fall right on the beat to generate heat. As the melody and Ches Smith’s drums enter, however, Halvorson places off-kilter syncopation into the arrangement, which Smith plays around on with a jazz musician’s sense of swing. Not that it’s “swinging” in a traditional sense, however. Halvorson’s guitar solo moves across several rhythmic feels, though all seem to be in basic 4/4 time. For a moment, Hebert and Smith work in a loose funk, then they move out of it, lurching and stiffening. At the start of Finlayson’s trumpet solo, Hebert and Smith create eighth-note talking bass swing for 15 or 20 seconds, but it breaks down. Eventually, the horns enter, punching out syncopated hits such that the time signature seems to disappear into complexity.
Considered as a whole, “Away with You (No. 55)” is a piece of music that is highly structured in a manner that makes rhythmic “feel” one of its many shifting elements. Like much of Braxton’s music, this tune refuses to settle into a satisfying groove, a deep or earthy kind of pocket, instead using different grooves the way boppers used chords — such that playing convincingly across the “changes” (not chord changes here but rhythmic changes) is much of push-pull of this music. Working on this terrain of rhythmic variation is the art of this recording and this strain of the new jazz coming out of New York in 2016.
Check out the compelling and propulsive “Safety Orange (No. 59)”, which begins as a super-tricky exercise in playing a guitar riff across two different tempos (or different relationships of the melody to a single tempo?), with horn parts that sit above both versions of the lick. In its complexity, this tune begins sounding almost like an old ‘70s fusion record. The track then shifts into a swirling loop in 10/8 time? Halvorson solos with great imagination over this rolling swarm of groove, Ches Smith keeping it organic and swampy in sound as the guitarist bends her notes and rides the groove like she was a blues guitarist. Here, it’s all working like a charm, and the presence of Alcorn and her bendy-sounding steel reinforces that this music can be a kind of post-modern blues.
There are other wonders on this recording: a ballad that features Garchick’s trombone up front and resonant but atonal pedal steel in “Fog Bank (No. 56)”; a feature for the bassist that turns into a strutting, staccato horn chart with Zappa-esque overtones in “Old King Misfit (No. 57)”; a textural feature for Irabagon’s alto and Finlayson’s liquid trumpet that puts all the voices into slow, rotating motion in “”Inky Ribbons (No. 53)”.
For me, the latest from Mary Halvorson reveals the sophisticated and abundant pleasures to be found in this new jazz, even when the music doesn’t speak directly to the rhythmic tradition of dance in jazz. Rhythmic play and complexity are still paramount in this music, but the aesthetic is different from that inherent in, say, the rhythmic play that existed between Basie, Walter Page, Jo Jones, and Freddie Green. Is it more “European”? The implications of that question are well beyond the scope of this review, and they may tread into an area of potential discomfort for people who love this music.
But I believe the scope of our music to be as broad as the nation, and I love the fountain of pleasures in this octet — clashes of texture, sudden rushes of beauty or drama, unforgettable individual voices, and the expression of a set of fascinating ideas about how music can be organized. Mary Halvorson keeps our ears on their toes.