Continuing her streak of outstanding releases, guitarist extraordinaire Mary Halvorson once again shows her determination to build upon her unique style as a composer and bandleader. She's taken her septet from 2013's superb Illusionary Sea and added an eighth member, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, and the resulting music is typical Halvorson: harmonically complex, emotionally compelling, and full of interesting moments worth savoring.
The first thing one notices about Alcorn's presence is the sense of atmosphere she provides. On the third track, "The Absolute Almost," she offers spare, crystalline notes that gradually emerge and then drift away, providing a somber opening to the cut. Then Halvorson herself joins in, with carefully placed notes that emerge in a pensive dialogue with Alcorn to continue the subdued conversation, before a break in which the rest of the band jumps in to take the piece in a dramatically different direction, full of bounce and rhythmic drive. (It's little surprises like these that always make listening to a Halvorson record such an adventure.) Alcorn's role seems to liberate Halvorson's playing, freeing up subtle opportunities for her to contribute to the group as an equal rather than as a dominant voice.
It's also immediately evident how well this group works together as a unit. Drummer Ches Smith and bassist John Hébert have worked as Halvorson's partners for several recordings, to the point that they are an intuitive element of the rhythmic fluidity that is one of her trademarks. Even during the record's more raucous moments, there's never a sense that they're in danger of losing control of the pulse. And the horns are as fabulous as you would expect: with Jonathan Finlayson, Jon Irabagon, Ingrid Laubrock and Jacob Garchik in the lineup, Halvorson has a superlative brass section for her rich compositions, each member equally adept as a soloist or as an ensemble contributor.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the recording is its strong emotional core. Listening to the opening of the record, "Spirit Splitter," and the jubilant horn interplay that propels the track, it is clear that this is music to be enjoyed, not simply admired or respected. Whether we are taken down a path of exultant cacophony or melancholy musings, with Halvorson as our guide it is sure to involve her irresistible melodic sensibility. I'm sure Halvorson's next installment in her impressive catalog will continue to surprise and astonish, but in the meantime she's given us another exceptional record to celebrate.
Spirit Splitter (no. 54); Away With You (no. 55); The Absolute Almost (no. 52);
Sword Barrel (no. 58); Old King Misfit (no. 57); Fog Bank (no. 56); Safety Orange
(no. 59); Inky Ribbons (no. 53).
Mary Halvorson: guitar; Susan Alcorn: pedal steel guitar; Jonathan Finlayson:
trumpet; Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone; Ingrid Laubrock: tenor saxophone; Jacob
Garchik: trombone; John Hébert: bass; Ches Smith: drums.