Mary Halvorson Quintet: Bending Bridges (2012)
For the sophomore effort from her quintet, guitarist Mary Halvorson reprises the winning formula of Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12, 2010). Again, there is a mix of pieces for the full ensemble and for Halvorson in trio; and, again, the end result defies classification, touching on spidery improv, jazz tradition and avant rock in a cleverly idiosyncratic brew. Only this time out, she is even more successful. Her writing has developed, unveiling appealing tunes enlivened by arrangements which extract the best from the resources at her disposal.
In spite of the presence of illustrious saxophonist Jon Irabagon, Halvorson proves the star soloist, sounding like no one else. Her crisp, single line picking, alternately springy and spiky, remains readily identifiable after just a few notes, notwithstanding her diversity of pitch flexing effects and attacks. Bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith create a synergetic response to the leader's discursive approach. Hébert anchors through a fleet-ingered, muscular tone, while the drummer ably accompanies Halvorson wherever she goes, whether needing rocky energy or nervy clatter. Irabagon and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson appear on five of the nine selections. Neither is flashy. Finlayson's lean statements and fanfares provide a cooling balm while the reedman's trajectory is never straightforward. He sets challenges for himself which he meets with fluent ease, spinning keening Ornette-ish melodies one moment and abrasive distortion the next.
Halvorson's knotty charts, with their countless unpredictable twists and varied backdrops, breed responsive and involved interplay. The pick of the quintet tracks is the opener, "Sinks When She Rounds The Bend." Typical of the relentless switchbacks, the nagging bittersweet theme first gives way to a short triumphal passage from the guitarist, and then a rippling, unaccompanied spot for Hébert, before building to a firestorm of skronk, the fervor dissipating to nothing in an unexpectedly understated finish. The turbulent "Love In Eight Colors" features Irabagon's most compelling statement: he starts with clipped plosive tones (which sound as if they are played backwards) before extending into an undulating legato which disintegrates into a litany of distorted blurts.
Of the trio outings, "Forgotten Men In Silver" is particularly fine. A deceptively simple air emerges from a scratchy bass/drum interlude before being subjected to characteristic deconstruction, while on "That Old Sound," the languor is spiked by an insistent, questioning jangle which sets the mood for the ensuing interaction. But really, each cut repays close attention. How could Bending Bridges be improved? Perhaps only by featuring the full quintet throughout.
Track Listing: Sinks When She Rounds The Bend (No. 22); Hemorrhaging Smiles (No. 25); Forgotten Men In Silver (No. 24); Love In Eight Colors (No. 21); The Periphery Of Scandal (No. 23); That Old Sound (No. 27); Sea Cut Like Snow (No. 26); Deformed Weight Of Hands (No. 28); All The Clocks (No. 29).
Personnel: Mary Halvorson: guitar; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone; John Hébert: bass; Ches Smith: drums.