October 31, 2010

Playlist Week of 10-30-10

* Vivaldi: Violin Concertos, RV 386, etc. (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola) (Sony Classical CD)
* Vivaldi: Violin Concertos, RV 331, etc. (VBO/Marcon/Carmignola) (Archiv Produktion CD)
* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations/14 Canons (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)†
* Charles Mingus: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady (Impulse! CD)
* Charles Mingus: Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (Impulse! CD)
* Charles Mingus: Mingus Plays Piano (Impulse! CD)
* Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy: Cornell 1964 (Blue Note 2CD)
* Sun Ra: The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums: Cymbals/Crystal Spears (Evidence 2CD)
* Lowell Davidson Trio: Lowell Davidson Trio (ESP CD)
* Anthony Braxton & Joe Morris: Four Improvisations (Duo) 2007 (d.2) (Clean Feed 4CD)
* Anthony Braxton: Quartet (Moscow) 2008 (Leo CD)
* Anthony Braxton Diamond Curtain Wall Quartet: Mannheim, Germany 10-05-10 (AUD CDR)
* Anthony Braxton Mirror Mirror House Septet: Strasbourg, France 10-07-10 (AUD CDR)
* Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12 CD)
* Mary Halvorson Quintet: Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12 CD)
* MAP (Halvorson/Nakatani/Thomas): Six Improvisations for Guitar, Bass & Drums (H&H Prod. CD)
* MAP (Halvorson/Nakatani/Radding): Fever Dream (Taiga 2½ LP)
* Ches Smith & These Arches: Finally Out of My Hands (Skirl CD)
* Tom Rainey Trio (w/Mary Halvorson, Ingrid Laubrock): Pool School (Clean Feed CD)
* Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House: Anti-House (Intakt CD)
* Scanner with The Post Modern Jazz Quartet: Blink of an Eye (Thirsty Ear CD)
* Isotope 217°: The Unstable Molecule (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Isotope 217°: untonian_automatic (Thrill Jockey CD)
* Grateful Dead: Formerly the Warlocks (Hampton, VA October 1989)(d.2-¬4) (GDP/Rhino 6CD)†/‡
* Yes: Tales From Topographic Oceans (Atlantic 2LP)
* Yes: Relayer (Atlantic/Friday Music LP)
* Big Star: Keep An Eye On The Sky (d.2) (selections) (Ardent/Rhino 4CD)†/‡
* Cocteau Twins: Lullabies to Violaine (d.1-2) (4AD 4CD) †/‡
* Circus Devils: Ataxia (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Circus Devils: Gringo (Happy Jack Rock Records LP)
* Animal Collective: Feels (Fat Cat CD)
* Animal Collective: “Grass” (Fat Cat CDEP/DVD)

†/‡=iPod in the car


After working myself up into a fanboy frenzy last week, I ordered a whole bunch of Mary Halvorson-related records from Squid Co., one of the few places in the world you can find this stuff. They arrived on Wednesday, and I’ve been listening to them intently ever since.

When I say that Mary Halvorson “is the most complete guitarist around” what I am talking about is a virtuosity that goes beyond the fretboard. Sure, she has mastered the technique of guitar playing, but playing a million notes per second is not what she’s about (although she can play the fast stuff with astonishing precision when the music requires it). What makes her a “complete” guitarist is that she is in total control of the infinite tonal varieties made possible by the electric guitar and her willingness to exploit every acoustical/electrical phenomenon available to her with her big ol’ Gretsch archtop and simple, low-watt amplification—along with a modest array of modern digital effects (and a deliberately shorted out “crackleknob”). She can sound like the pure-toned Charlie Christian one minute and the scumbling expressionist, Derek Bailey, the next—but she can also rock out like Jimi Hendrix or throw up screaming walls of noise a la Thurston Moore. But Mary Halvorson sounds like none of these people. She has synthesized her own utterly unique approach to the electric guitar that unifies all these seemingly disparate styles. Moreover, she listens. Her contribution is always appropriate to the musical setting she finds herself in. You will never hear Mary Halvorson engage in easy showboating. Her prodigious virtuosity is always tastefully deployed in the service of group expression. Her appearances as a “sideman” consistently reveal her wide-ranging versatility and big-eared improvisational approach whether executing the thorny scores of Anthony Braxton or helping to realize the visionary work of her peers, such as Taylor Ho Bynum, Tom Rainey and Ingrid Laubrock.

With Saturn Sings, her second album on Firehouse 12, Halvorson further demonstrates that she is not only a first-rate bandleader but also a formidable composer in her own right. With the first notes of “Leak Over Six Five (No.14)”, we seem to be picking up where she left off with Dragon’s Head: her usual trio (with John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums) stating an irregular, interlocking set of themes. Then two horns enter (Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone and Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet) with a sweetly harmonized counter-melody, blowing across the musical landscape like a cool breeze on a hot afternoon. Exquisite! And then the music takes off from there, culminating in a triumphant, unison fanfare. Halvorson has mentioned interviews that she was listening to a lot of Art Blakey when writing these compositions. If she’s referring to Wayne Shorter’s tenure in the band, then yeah, I can sort of hear it (not that I am any expert on Blakey’s massive discography). But these quintet pieces remind me of Andrew Hill more than anyone else from that golden era, with their sophisticated metrical schemes and angular lyricism. But make no mistake: this is not some retro-be-bop nostalgia trip. Saturn Sings is very much up-to-the-minute, yet still comfortably residing within the rich, living tradition of jazz, that well-spring of all the avant-free-improv-noise-rock that followed—like it or not. Halvorson brings these strains and dialects together into a uniquely personal language fit for our Twenty-first Century hyperworld. This music feels inevitable, timeless—perfect.

Interspersed with the six quintet compositions, each with their own quicksilver rhythmic feel, are four trio constructions which allow Halvorson to really stretch out. “Sea Seizure (No.19)” combines metallic dissonance with spidery, cleanly articulated arpeggios a la King Crimson, while “Right Size Too Little (No.12)” sets Canterbury-ian folk-art themes into a multi-sectioned opus which allows both Hébert and Smith a chance to solo. But, as with every other track on the album, it is Halvorson’s intriguing note choices, pointillist phrasing and blurry whammy-pedal effects that keep things interesting. I’m not particularly taken by the horn players as soloists, who seem unsure of themselves amidst the complex structures. Nevertheless, their contributions to the ensembles are immeasurable: “Crack the Sky (No.11)” is a gorgeously orchestrated ballad even your grandma could love. And the album concludes with “Saturn Sings (No.18)”, a moody, mid-tempo romp combining serpentine unison lines with crackling group improvisation that miraculously stops on a dime. Very tasty!

To say that Saturn Sings is “accessible” might seem to cheapen it, to make it seem like some sort of sell-out. But this album could change a lot of people’s minds about the viability of “free jazz” in the Twenty-First Century, if only they could hear it. Fortunately, Halvorson has been attracting semi-high-profile media attention from the likes of NPR and New Music Box. But this album needs to be heard in toto, in situ, and with the concentration generally allowed for a novel or movie, to really appreciate its charms. The rewards are commensurate with the effort expended. Only twenty-nine years old, Mary Halvorson is a mere youngster and I can’t wait to hear what she does next. A record like Saturn Sings gives me hope for the future.

1 comment:

Sam said...

I've evidently got lots of digging to do with Ms. Havorson! It'll be fun!

Here's my lists for last week:

Playlist 2010-11-01

*Art Ensemble of Chicago: People in Sorrow
*Art Ensemble of Chicago: Les Stances a Sophie
*Art Ensemble of Chicago: 1970-08-07 Berlin (CDR)
*John Coltrane: Expression
*Miles Davis + 19: Miles Ahead
*Sun Ra: Hiroshima
*Cecil Taylor: Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come (disc 2)
*David Torn Prezens: 2008-03-14 New Haven CT (CDR) disc 1
*Animal Collective: Feels
*Bablicon: The Orange Tapered Moon
*Bablicon: A Flat Inside a Fog: The Cat That Was a Dog
*Bablicon: In a Different City
*Beatles: Unsurpassed Broadcasts, 2nd ed. (CDR) Vol. 5
*Circulatory System: Inside Views
*Diminisher: Imaginary Volcano
*Fiery Furnaces: Bitter Tea
*Tim Gane & Sean O'Hagan: La Vie d'Artiste
*Genesis: BBC Master DAT (CDR)
*Grateful Dead: 1972-05-10 Amsterdam (CDR) selections
*Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon's Head
*Jimi Hendrix: Love or Confusion (CD single)
*High Llamas: Buzzle Bee
*Prince & the Revolution: 1985-04-07 Miami (CDR) disc 1
*Stereolab: First of the Microbe Hunters
*Stock, Hausen, & Walkman: Oh My Bag!
*Zombies, et al.: Into the Afterlife

Reading log 2010-11-01

*Barth, John. Where Three Roads Meet (started/finished)
*Moore, Steven. The Novel: An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (started)
*National Lampoon Presents True Facts: The Book (started)
*Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Florida Ed.) (reread/started)
*Connolly, Cyril. The Unquiet Grave (finished)
*Gaiman, Neil, et al. The Absolute Sandman, vol. 2 (in progress)