Mary Halvorson Quintet: Saturn Sings (2010)
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One of the things that make Mary Halvorson's music so distinctive is the sense of flux which ensures that every release under the guitarist's own name seems like a report back from musical territories as yet uncharted.
Making Saturn Sings something of a milestone, as the addition of horns might have had a detrimental effect on the music of her trio, which has already reached a state of almost telepathic understanding. But there's no reason to fear, as the music is as singular as ever.
Listening to "Mile High Like (No.16)," it's difficult to imagine how the piece could be played any other way. For all of the singularity of Halvorson's instrumental conception, her fellow players have a knack for deeply enriching the music; Jonathan Finlayson's stately trumpet backs sounds as if it's the only logical alternative to becoming involved in the rhythmic stew fomented by Halvorson, bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith.
Halvorson, Hébert and Smith comprised the trio on 2008's Dragon's Head (Firehouse 12), so it's clear where that telepathy comes from. Happily, the slickness often born of such longstanding associations isn't evident here, a characteristic apparent on "Sea Seizure (No.19)," where the music assumes a polyrhythmic edge through the simple expedient of the three players working in different rhythms. What might have been a mess retains a coherence rendered only more extraordinary by Halvorson's string manipulations.
By the by, the numbers attached to each composition refer to the order in which Halvorson composed them. This has the practical effect of allowing her to realize how she's developing as a composer. Her playing, however, might not be so amenable to such a straightforward practice, because she's already working such a personal seam. On "Right Size Too Little (No.12)," her aptitude for deconstruction is apparent. As is so often the case, her tone is legitimately clean, which throws the spotlight on the degree to which she's constructively taking things apart. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the program, the music is informed by nuance, the slightest inference on the part of one player being the object of stimulus for the others.
So it might be the case that conception is the key when it comes to Mary Halvorson's music. If so, then it's important to emphasize that the notion doesn't preclude warmth or indeed the staple of creative improvised music that is spontaneity. Both of these qualities are here in abundance and the consequent balance is as finely struck as anything out there.
Track Listing: Leak Over Six Five (No.14); Sequential Tears In It (No.20); Mile High Like (No.16); Moon Traps In Seven Rings (No.17); Sea Seizure (No.19); Crack In Sky (No.11); Right Size Too Little (No.12); Crescent White Singe (No.13); Cold Mirrors (No.15); Saturn Sings (No.18).
Personnel: Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Jon Irabagon: alto sax; Mary Halvorson: guitar; John Hebert: bass; Ches Smith: drums.
Record Label: Firehouse 12 Records
Style: Free Improv/Avant-Garde