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Mary Halvorson Trio: Dragon's Head

Troy Collins By

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A singular talent, Brooklyn-based guitarist Mary Halvorson has come into her own as a composer and improviser with her trio debut, Dragon's Head. The Wesleyan-trained guitarist's recent tours and collaborations with her former instructor, composer/multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, along with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum have helped set the stage for this stunning recording.

Although Halvorson has co-led a number of similarly intimate ensembles in the recent past—including People, her duo with drummer Kevin Shea, and an avant-folk pairing with violist Jessica Pavone—it was her appearance on Sister Phantom Owl Fish (Ipecac, 2004), the raucous sophomore album of bassist Trevor Dunn's Trio Convulsant, that brought her wide acclaim.

Dragon's Head merges her disparate interests by integrating the unfettered aggression of her work with Dunn and the unclassifiable, yet strangely appealing excursions of her recent duo recording with Jessica Pavone, On and Off, (Skirl, 2007). Halvorson, joined by a sympathetic rhythm section in the persons of bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith (also of Trio Convulsant), blends pop savvy abstraction with explosive fervor as she and her band mates extrapolate her heady tunes.

These ten pieces ride a bristling undercurrent of undulating bass lines and endlessly modulating percussive patterns. Quicksilver tempo shifts, spasmodic stop-start rhythms and intervallic harmonic progressions form the basis of Halvorson's unconventional writing; Hebert and Smith navigate these turbulent waters with dexterity as Halvorson unveils a stunning array of cadences.

A fluid rhythm section with a deep rapport, Hebert and Smith's conversational interplay unfolds in a state of continuous flux. Their exceptional listening skills, elastic sense of time and wide-ranging dynamics provide Halvorson with the sort of interactive support her impulsive excursions require.

Halvorson's curious sense of melody and uncanny ability to derive resonant harmonies from fragmentary melodic kernels, jagged phrases and caustic textures reveals a remarkable skill for crafting alluring tunes from woolly abstraction; delicately picked arpeggios intermingle with bursts of unearthly EFX-driven noise that veers from lush, Hendrixian lyricism to Sharrock-inspired skronk.

Beyond the cerebral charms of her oblique harmonies and capricious melodies, Halvorson employs the full sonic range of the guitar: she is not afraid to rock. Even when she unleashes a slew of distorted riffing and scrawling guitar tones worthy of the most tenacious indie rocker, her approach towards such testosterone-fueled mayhem is decidedly more abstruse—filled with unorthodox chord voicings, splintery lines and oscillating EFX loops.

Dragon's Head is not Halvorson's first recording, yet it is the first that truly represents her full capacity as both a composer and an improviser; light years ahead of her peers, she is the most impressive guitarist of her generation. The future of jazz guitar starts here.


Track Listing: 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.

Personnel: Mary Halvorson: guitar; John Hebert: bass; Ches Smith: drums.

Title: Dragon's Head | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Firehouse 12 Records

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