Nov 11 2016
There’s no denying that guitarist Mary Halvorson has a unique sound. It’s like she’s creating a soundtrack for a movie scripted entirely in morse code, to where any melodic implications are simply the aftermath of the rhythmic strategy.
There are times her music makes me suspicious, like it’s all a big put-on. But forward-thinking music that is a few inches ahead of everything else out front tends to have that quality. It’s a place where inspired brilliance and addled confusion can become indistinguishable from one another, and the willingness to buy in is conflicted by the uncertainty if there really is any there, there. This is a good thing. Challenging music shouldn’t be easy to absorb, and its unpredictability shouldn’t be by-the-numbers. Challenging music should make the listener question what they’re hearing and even their own beliefs and reactions to it.
When Halvorson is out on her own doing her thing, the music can come off as opaque, impenetrable. But when she’s able to shepherd into the fold musicians that add a strong melodic perspective, that’s when her music’s personality really comes out, and her morse code approach is brought alive in the imagery of living color.
Her newest album Away With You lands dead center of the latter category. There’s a panoramic perspective that brings out the fullness in each piece, and serves up a number of different points of connectivity. The harmonic component gives a greater sense of the music’s depth, and it’s an effect that carries over even when the music enters a passage that’s sparse and strung out. Her rhythmic approach isn’t the least bit tamped down for this session. There are times when she implies the melody via a rhythmic scatter plot. But adding the wind instruments of Jonathan Finlayson, Jon Irabagon, Ingrid Laubrock and Jacob Garchik allows her to fill the gaps in between and results in a much richer sound because of it. Adding further intrigue to the session is the addition of pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn to her core trio of bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith. There’s a game of espionage between the two, but it’s rarely obvious who is the one being shadowed and which of the two guitarists is pulling the strings and what it all means when it sounds as if they’re acting in concert.
It’s not an album completely out of the blue. There are some real parallels to be drawn between Away With You and Halvorson’s 2013 release Illusionary Sea (which received the #15 slot on this site’s Best of 2013 list). Aside from the same line-up (less Alcorn), the changing tides of tone and tempo, as well as the heightened melodic presence inform both recordings. But on Halvorson’s newest, the concept of change seems to be getting addressed with a storyteller’s conceit rather than as the natural result of elemental forces. This brings a definition to the songs that has the counterintuitive effect of bringing their complexity into greater focus… and yet another (welcome) challenge.
Your album personnel: Mary Halvorson (guitar), Susan Alcorn (pedal steel guitar), Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Jon Irabagon (alto sax), Ingrid Laubrock (tenor sax), Jacob Garchik (trombone), John Hébert (bass) and Ches Smith (drums).
Released on Firehouse 12 Records.
Listen to more of the album at the artist’s Bandcamp page.