Dragon's Head is guitarist Halvorson's debut as a leader, and there's every reason to hope it'll be the first of many. In the past, she's worked in duos with both violist Jessica Pavone and drummer Kevin Shea, as well as in Anthony Braxton's ensemble. It's clear that she's bringing that wealth of experience to bear on this effort too. The program consists entirely of original compositions, and it's abundantly obvious that they were written with this particular trio in mind. All three musicians bring not only their knowledge of matters technical to the music, but also their individual and collective sympathies. The result is a body of highly individualistic music shot through with the singular energy that only comes from musicians improvising together.
It's clear too that Halvorson as a composer, and the trio as a group, are mindful of color and the varying dynamics that can be extracted even from such a relatively restrictive line-up. These matters are to the fore on "Sweeter Than You (No.4)," where the semi-static nature of some passages is in marked contrast to the woozy momentum generated in the early stage.
Halvorson favors a dry yet resonant attack, which contributes in no small measure to the distinctiveness of the trio's soundscape. Drummer Ches Smith is a model of both power and restraint on "Screws Loose (No. 8)," where again the momentum generated is distinctly yet winningly off-balance; and bassist John Hebert masters the broken time as though his life depended on it.
The relatively lengthy "Totally Opaque (No. 7)" is underpinned by an unconventional groove at first, before Halvorson in solo lays out her credentials as a highly distinctive voice. Her phrasing has the effect of laying an oblique layer over a foundation already abstract, by dint of its denial of conventional time. In that respect, the trio might belong as much under the progressive rock heading as anywhere else, but that denies elements of their essentially expansionist approach. This piece underscores the pertinence of that point, especially when passages marked by a form of quasi-minimalism show the degree to which the trio are intent on subverting the tropes of empty virtuosity.
The dissonant dynamics of "Momentary Lapse (No.1)" are marked by a kind of faltering momentum that might just be as unique as anything in the music in general. When the piece progresses into the kind of noise that's ripe with an accommodation reached between restriction and freedom, the music assumes a singular life of its own. This is intriguing enough to have the listener returning repeatedly to its pleasures, and indeed rejoicing in the overall program's sheer delight in striking out for new pastures.
Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies; Momentary Lapse; Screws Loose; Scant Frame; Sweeter Than You; Sank Silver Purple White; Too Many Ties; Totally Opaque; Dragon's Head; April April May.
Mary Halvorson: guitar; John Hebert: bass; Ches Smith: drums.