Mary Halvorson Septet – “Illusionary Sea”


Mary Halvorson - "Illusionary Sea"Guitarist Mary Halvorson has been doing her own thing for some time now.  Most of her albums, arguably, don’t even fall into the Jazz category.  It’s the kind of music for why avant-garde is its own designation… music that is fearless and inventive and unabashedly creative.  There’s something exceptionally respectable about an artist who is so focused on finding their unique creative voice, that they charge headlong into the process, like Wile E. Coyote running straight through a wall, leaving behind a cloud of dust and a hole in their shape.

But sometimes those things don’t make for very pretty music.  To hell with pretty, it’s often a challenge just to listen to it sometimes.  It can posses a rawness that makes it tough to connect with.  Often, creative endeavors such as these, especially in the earlier stages before they begin to really coalesce, they sound unformed and wild.  In terms of music, it often leads to projects that one doesn’t listen to so much as just experience on a visceral level.  This isn’t, in and of itself, a bad thing.  Sometimes it’s quite illuminating to get a glimpse of the experience from the artist’s perspective, when it’s just the artist and herself, finding that perfect form of expression, with no mind paid to a potential audience.  On the other hand, as a listener, it’s also nice when the music meets the ear half way (or thereabouts).

On Halvorson’s newest, Illusionary Sea, she continues her trend of inventive music, but finds the right equation to offer up an album that is a fun listen as much as it daring expressionism.  Featuring a solid cast that includes the addition of trombonist Jacob Garchik and tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock to the mix, Halvorson creates an album of a strange geometry, of melodies with a warped beauty and harmonies of an essential warmth, and brings a fuzzy hospitality to chaotic, unfettered music.

Your album personnel:  Mary Halvorson (guitar), Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Jon Irabagon (alto saxophone), Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone), Jacob Garchik (trombone), John Hébert (bass), and Ches Smith (drums).

Though unique, Halvorson’s music isn’t without peer or ancestry.  I’m most reminded of the way Jerry Hahn wove his skewed guitar notes through the wild tangle of John Handy’s exhilarating, forward-thinking recordings of the sixties.  Like Hahn, Halvorson’s notes often sound haphazard and thrown about blithely, except for the fact that their emergent route gradually displays an unusual logic… like a theoretical construct of physics, something that can be proven, but only under a condition that doesn’t currently exist on planet Earth.

Illusionary Sea opens with intersecting expressions of melody that generate all kinds of beauteous warmth when their paths cross.  Their paths join after that lovely opening and enter into an affable cadence with a playful bounce.  As the tune progresses, it begins to lose form, instruments wandering off trail though not entirely out of sight.  It takes a Ches Smith drums solo to bring them all back home.  Smith, who, in the past, has displayed a knack for a furious assault that never comes off as superfluous or showy, continues that trend here.  When the last of his fireworks explodes, the ensemble comes back together with a more textured, wildly intersecting rendition of the original introduction… not quite as lovely, but possessing an allure all its own.

Second track “Smiles of Good Men #34” begins with the disassembled montage of colliding sound, but then begins to merge into a single lane of driving cadence and oddball harmonies.  After threatening to come apart at the seams yet again, the ensemble coalesces for a final moment of melodic enchantment.

“Red Sky Still Sea #31” has a languidly rocking motion to it, accentuated by Finlayson’s punchy trumpet contribution, which hems in the seams of the long flowing harmonies of saxes and trombone.

“Four Pages of Robots #30” is a jitterbug of a tune, skittering excitedly from side to side, with Irabagon and Halvorson trading gusts of notes like self-contained tempests, no teapot.

“Fourth Dimensional Confession #41” has the spirit of a ballad, but not the patience to sit and wait for the lovers it originally targeted… meandering off for an adventure all its own.

“Butterfly Orbit #32” may be the first Halvorson tune that could be defined as “catchy,” in the traditional sense.  It’s not a traditional song.  But its melody is soft and embraceable, it develops that melody in a way that’s easy to follow, and even after it’s departed that original statement of melody, it clings to the memory and is ready to be hummed at a moment’s notice.  The ensemble fires off notes at one another like a hi-speed game of tag played atop a bouncy castle.  Even after Halvorson briefly dominates the song with an electric burst of machine gun guitar fire, the final return to the melody sound natural, as if expected all along.

Halvorson ends the album with a rendition of fellow guitarist Philip Catherine’s “Nairam.”  With a delicate touch, Halvorson sends off tiny surges of harmonic warmth over the surface of the melody.  And after an album with a thrilling demonstration of sonic aeronautics, this seems almost like a lullaby… and the way it ends the affair and puts the album, “Nairam” may be just that.

This album makes me all kinds of happy.  I gravitate to music that can be this inventive and retain all of its natural charm and sense of fun.

Released on Firehouse 12 Records.

Jazz from the Brooklyn scene.

Available at:  Bandcamp CD/Digital/Vinyl | eMusic MP3 | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3 | Amazon Vinyl



Other Things You Should Know:

Drummer Ches Smith put out an excellent album of his own this year, on which Halvorson contributes.  You can read the review of Hammered HERE.

Also, the first mention Halvorson received on this site was for her duo album with violist Jessica Pavone.  You can read the tiny review of Departure of Reason HERE.

Trombonist Garchik’s The Heavens made my Best of 2012 list.  Read the review HERE.

I could really go on with no end in sight.  Pretty much everyone who participates on this album has gotten mentions both here and in my weekly eMusic Jazz Picks columns.  Hit the drop-down menu on the right side of the screen that says “Musicians” and begin searching for more music from this album’s personnel.