Mary Halvorson: Artlessly Falling

John Sharpe BY

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Mary Halvorson: Artlessly Falling
Not content with having scaled the heights of the guitar pantheon, with the second release from Code Girl, Mary Halvorson also cements her place in a unique genre of her own design. As befits someone who has taken to heart Anthony Braxton's dictum to find her own musical voice, she presents something which is part art song, part indie rock, part mainstream jazz and part free form, but all Halvorson.

Mirroring the progression of her trio, first to quintet, then finally to octet, she has expanded Code Girl's palette on Artlessly Falling, by introducing the tenor saxophone of Brooklyn-based, Swiss-born Maria Grand, who also offers the option of further vocal support. But undoubtedly the most eye-catching addition is the recruitment of the legendary British singer Robert Wyatt on three tracks.

While there were three instrumentals on Code Girl's eponymous debut, here the songs stand front and center throughout, with each of the pieces built around Halvorson's inscrutable lyrics. At the suggestion of writer and co-producer David Breskin, Halvorson has invested effort in setting her striking imagery in a range of different poetic forms, as the liner booklet reveals, each delivered in singular fashion.

None of this would be possible without a high caliber crew. The presence of such an authoritative interpreter as singer Amirtha Kidambi, ensures that the words fit even the most involved tunes or, indeed, no tune at all as on the extemporized accompaniment of the title cut. By establishing Code Girl on the foundation supplied by her colleagues bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara from the co-operative trio Thumbscrew, Halvorson has a tight yet flexible rhythm team she can trust to effortlessly morph between styles as the music demands.

Nowhere is that better illustrated than in the opening "The Lemon Trees," which begins with a gentle lilt and Wyatt's distinctively plaintive voice, before giving way to a sunny trumpet break with a slight Latin feel from Adam O'Farrill (who replaces Ambrose Akinmusire from the first album). When the other instruments fall away to leave him with just Fujiwara for company, he remains melodic but increasingly expressive as they move progressively away from a regular meter. Once O'Farrill finishes, the drummer pushes out yet further in a series of unfettered but carefully sculpted percussive breaks. Then they return to the initial gambit. It is hard to think of anyone else who could conceive such a bold yet inclusive formulation.

Elsewhere Halvorson uses the horns to cushion, counterpoint and sometimes carry the melodies, but she also plots opportunities for them to stretch out. Both seize their chances on the unhinged lament of "Last-Minute Smears," based on testimony uttered by Brett Kavanaugh during his hearing to be appointed to the Supreme Court, Grand beseeching with a false fingered climax as she slides between pitches, O'Farrill sparely elegant with an offhand lyricism. By contrast on "Bigger Flames," after a supporting refrain behind Wyatt, they indulge in a relaxed conversational exchange.

It is here, between verses, that Halvorson takes her first turns in the spotlight, scuzzy over a rocky beat, having largely confined herself to structural pick-driven ripples and pitch bending comping up till this point. She lets rip on "Mexican War Streets (Pittsburgh)" atomizing her fuzzed lines into reverberating chaos, before a final theme restatement. But important as it is, the guitar is only one part of what, on Artlessly Falling, proves to be an extraordinary and captivating conception .

Track Listing

The Lemon Trees; Last-Minute Smears; Walls and Roses; Muzzling Unwashed; Bigger Flames; Mexican War Streets (Pittsburgh); A Nearing; Artlessly Falling.


Mary Halvorson: guitar; Amirtha Kidambi: voice / vocals; Adam O'Farrill: trumpet; Maria Grand: saxophone, tenor; Michael Formanek: bass, acoustic; Tomas Fujiwara: drums.

Additional Instrumentation

Robert Wyatt: vocals (1, 3, 5).

Album information

Title: Artlessly Falling | Year Released: 2020 | Record Label: Firehouse 12 Records

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