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Mary Halvorson: Dragon's Head (2008)

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Mary Halvorson: Dragon's Head How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

One of guitarist Mary Halvorson's most high profile gig was with Anthony Braxton, featuring in his Twelvetet and Sextet, and most prominently in his Diamond Curtain Wall Trio. In these diverse settings she allied top quality musicianship with energetic unpredictability, a combination equally to the fore in her trio debut Dragon's Head, though here framed within the context of her own idiosyncratic compositions.

Halvorson wrote all of these songs with seasoned bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith's playing in mind, and she has succeeded in forging a coherent group identity, no matter that she takes the opportunity to experiment with different compositional forms. Hebert's bass provides a resonant grounding for the stylistic variety, while Smith deals in rhythmic emphasis and coloration, and both are adept at the on a dime turns that Halvorson demands.

Halvorson's compositional voice is every bit as distinctive as her instrumental prowess, with most pieces boasting unpredictable swerves in direction and contrasts in energy, meter and mood. "Momentary Lapse" provides ample illustration, with a two part theme comprising an insistent acceleration of repeated notes, followed by chiming guitar and ticking drums. Hebert's bass then provides a lyrical lead voice, before swirling guitar atop clattering drums, only to mutate into a blizzard of fuzzed guitar, disintegrating into an explosion of ricocheting space invader sounds in a great solo from Halvorson, until finally reprising the chiming ticking theme. And all in just eight minutes.

Elsewhere themes are as much rhythmic as melodic, constructed from simple materials, but assembled in counterintuitive ways that sound new, like the multiple tempos of "Scant Frame" or the dynamic contrasts of "Sweeter Than You."

Halvorson reinvents the role of the guitar as a generator of texture and percussive drive, though deploying her palette of effects judiciously. On the ironic but doomy "Too Many Ties" her slurred notes are not so much bent, as back breaking and contorted, while the closing "April April May" finds her cleanly picked lines skipping across a sparse rhythmic landscape, in contrast to the ominously galumphing theme. Fitting well with the Firehouse 12 label's burgeoning reputation for the unconventional, this album warrants repeated listens, taking time to yield up its many secrets.


Track Listing: Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies; Momentary Lapse; Screws Loose; Scant Frame; Sweeter Than You; Sank Silver Purple White; Too Many Ties; Totally Opaque; Dragons Head; April April May.

Personnel: Mary Halvorson: guitar; John Hebert: bass; Ches Smith: drums.

Record Label: Firehouse 12 Records

Style: Free Improv/Avant-Garde


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