Aside from her most obvious musical talents, including her phenomenal guitar chops and her budding talent as a lyricist, Mary Halvorson
has a special gift for understanding the abilities of her bandmates and drawing out their strengths to the fullest. Part of it is the way she tends to keep the same company in her assorted projects: bassist Michael Formanek
and drummer Tomas Fujiwara
are the leading examples, having recorded extensively with her in their trio Thumbscrew, as heard on their recent Anthony Braxton Project
(Cuneiform, 2020), while she has in turn joined them on their own endeavors. But it's also her knack for identifying a key addition here and there that can lead to a leap in her music's evolution. Witness for instance the difference pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn
made in transforming Halvorson's established septet to an octet on 2016's Away With You
(Firehouse 12). Alcorn brought the nuance and texture that lent a new dimension to Halvorson's complex compositions, proving that Halvorson's writing process doesn't occur in a vacuum, but is always taking shape in conversation with her partners. Artlessly Falling
, the second release by Halvorson's Code Girl, is another window into Halvorson's unfailing instincts for finding the right people for the right project. The group's outstanding self-titled debut in 2018 (Firehouse 12) teamed Halvorson, Fujiwara, and Formanek with trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire
and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi
in a quintet that expertly merged prog-rock and avant-jazz. Now Halvorson has augmented that original lineup with a couple pivotal changes: while keeping a trumpet in the mix (only now played by Adam O'Farrill
instead of Akinmusire), she's added tenor saxophonist Maria Grand
, who also joins Kidambi occasionally on vocals. And then, not to be outdone, there are three cameos by Robert Wyatt
, the grizzled veteran of England's Canterbury scene whose presence here (after a recording hiatus begun in 2014) is itself noteworthy, in addition to being an explicit acknowledgement of Halvorson's debt to Wyatt in her own development as a songwriter.
One detects Grand's role from the opening track onward, as her voice harmonizes skillfully with Kidambi as a backdrop to Wyatt's fragile vulnerability on "The Lemon Trees." There's a somewhat more buoyant feel to this music than what is found on the group's debut, and this is largely due to the way Halvorson has brought Grand into the group. Although her vocal presence is sometimes subtle, and she doesn't get any show-stopping saxophone solos, the ensemble passages in which her tenor complements O'Farrill's lyrical trumpet are powerful, as one hears on "Bigger Flames," a lovely vehicle for Wyatt made all the more compelling by O'Farrill's and Grand's entwined lines. The two-horn harmonies on "Mexican War Streets (Pittsburgh)" are just as effective, lending a gentle grace to the music. If the music is somewhat less fluid and more tautly constructed than the freer feel of the debut, it's certainly just as captivating and perhaps even more addictive. And for those craving some tough-edged riffs, the album offers that too, on the relatively brief but memorable "Walls and Roses," where the guitarist unleashes a furious burst of distortion-laden heaviness over the band's punishing groove.
Halvorson's lyrics reflect her trademark care and attention to detail, using a variety of structures and methods that somehow conform perfectly to the musical shape of each piece. The themes tend to be rather dark"daggered hands," "muzzling unwashed thoughts," "charred Russian dolls" and the like conjure bleak worlds indeedwhich makes it all the more remarkable that the music typically stays so light on its feet. Halvorson even ventures into political territory on the disarming "Last-Minute Smears," a clever appropriation of testimony from the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, in which Kidambi's inimitable hyper-expressive delivery captures all the madness of that troubled episode (and Fujiwara's tongue-in-cheek "beer can" percussion provides additional ambience).
Knowing Halvorson's collaborative modus operandi, it's not at all unlikely that she'll have some new surprises in store for the next release from Code Girl. As this has become one of her most exciting and creative outlets, that will be good news indeed.
The Lemon Trees; Last-Minute Smears; Walls and Roses; Muzzling Unwashed; Bigger Flames; Mexican War Streets
(Pittsburgh); A Nearing; Artlessly Falling.
Robert Wyatt: vocals (1, 3, 5).