January 17, 2009

Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12)

Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-007) (2008)

Mary Halvorson: electric guitar
John Hebert: acoustic bass
Ches Smith: drums

Recorded February 24-25, 2008
Firehouse 12, New Haven, CT

I’ve written effusively about Mary Halvorson before, mostly as a member of Anthony Braxton’s recent ensembles and her work with fellow Braxtonian, Taylor Ho Bynum. But over the past few years, she has made a number of records under her own name, culminating last fall with this superb release on Bynum’s own Firehouse 12 label. Dragon’s Head generated some well-deserved high-profile press, including this generous article in the New York Times. Only twenty-eight years old, Halvorson is already a hugely important player in the avant-music world.

And rightly so. I’ve described Halvorson as the most “complete” guitarist around and what I mean by that is her ability to do (and, more importantly, her willingness to do) everything that can be done with the electric guitar. A guitar is at once a very simple and extremely complicated thing. Most guitarists only aim to accomplish one or two things with the instrument, whether it’s harmonic, melodic, or electronic (and it is seldom all three). Don’t get me wrong, many of the guitarists I dearly love only do a couple things, but they do them really, really well. Halvorson, on the other hand, is in select company because she aims to integrate the entire range of guitaristic possibilities into a unified style: from classical rigor to rocked out distortion, from jazz conventionalism to post-Bailey scumbling and glitchy electronic processing, from folky fingerpicking to the hairpin turns of bebop – all of it subsumed to the purpose of sublime music-making rather than simply showy displays of superfluous technique. This is what makes her a “complete” guitarist and so compelling an artist.

Dragon’s Head further demonstrates Halvorson’s gifts as a composer and each of these ten pieces were written specifically for these musicians. The guitar-bass-drums trio allows for plenty of space for Halvorson to show what she is capable of while Hebert and Smith provide sensitive, intuitive accompaniment. The album opener, “Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies” starts out sounding a little bit like some of Bill Frisell’s work circa. Gone, Just Like a Train (Nonesuch, 1998) with its loping, quasi-gospel-ish groove. But as things progress, Halvorson’s playing is full of odd and interesting note choices, articulated with an agitated straight-eighth-note edginess that rubs incisively against the swingy, stuttering feel of the rhythm section. The next track, “Momentary Lapse,” immediately demonstrates Halvorson’s command of the electronic aspects of the electric guitar. The piece organically evolves from gentle, ringing chords to full-on raging rock-isms, with effective use of echo/delay, a digital whammy-pedal, and a deliberately shorted-out volume knob to paint a richly textured sound image that reveals the immense orchestral possibilities of the electric guitar. Some of the compositions remind me of Henry Cow and the other “Canterbury” bands with their intricate, stop/start angularity and chamber-music sensibility. At other times, as on “Sank Silver Purple White,” Halvorson’s insistent, dissonant repetitions contrast with Smith’s relentlessly subdivided drumming to remind me a bit of Bill Bruford-era King Crimson. Sometimes Halvorson even rocks out with a Hendrixian fury. But these are just touchstones and an indication that Halvorson’s influences range far beyond the realm of “jazz guitar” – even though her generally pure and dry-as-a-bone tone quality may initially call to mind Jim Hall’s well-behaved traditionalism. Halvorson’s compositional/instrumental identity is all her own, eschewing typical head-solo-head forms and any trace of bluesy cliché. Furthermore, the trio functions more like a band of equals than as simply soloist and support, with plenty of improvisatory freedom for each member to make creative contributions to Halvorson’s engaging compositions. Dragon’s Head succeeds on all levels and is whole-heartedly recommended.


For an idea of what all the fuss is about, here’s a rather dark, but decent-sounding video of the Mary Halvorson Trio performing “Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies” at Barbés in Brooklyn, New York on November 12, 2008:

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