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Mary Halvorson Quintet: Saturn Sings

John Sharpe By

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Guitarist Mary Halvorson has graduated, summa cum laude, from the Anthony Braxton academy to become a hot ticket, popping up in ensembles as diverse as The Thirteenth Assembly, Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-House, Marc Ribot's Sun Ship and Crackleknob. And now, the adventurous Firehouse 12 imprint has released the keenly awaited followup to her debut as leader, Dragon's Head (Firehouse 12, 2008). This time out, her longstanding trio—completed by bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith, is supplemented by horns on six out of the ten cuts in this 66-minute program. But even with the horns, Halvorson remains the dominant voice. Deservedly so: her playing is as bracingly unorthodox as it gets, while still being unmistakably guitar-derived.

Her compositional sense continues to be idiosyncratically unpredictable. To Halvorson, each piece, numbered reflecting the order in which it was written, represents a challenge to keep moving and keep changing. A challenge she meets not only by varying the mood between, but also, indeed, within the tracks. "Moon Traps In Seven Rings (No. 17)" provides a case in point. After a melodic a capella introduction by Hébert, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson alternately sketch a lyrical refrain, only to be repeatedly intersected by a broad impasto of guitar skronk. A drum solo precedes a lightly swinging showcase for, first, alto sax, and then trumpet, before Halvorson takes center stage with fuzz guitar heroics, culminating in a high register single-note run which leads back to a recasting of the opening theme—this time, as a loose fugue, minus the guitar smears.

Thelonious Monk Competition prizewinner and maverick saxophone star Irabagon exercises judicious restraint with a plaintive edge. Nonetheless, his tonal distortions blend pleasingly with the leader's guitar scribbles on "Leak Over Six Five (No. 14)," while on "Crescent White Singe (No. 13)," he takes an astonishing solo, circular breathing a continuous yelping drone which sounds like an accordionist fighting with his instrument. Finlayson is more circumspect, his fizzing trumpet navigating choppy waters on the same track, but taking an extended Spanish-tinged outing on "Mile High Like (No. 16)," after the opening mariachi horns and involved theme. Of the trio tunes, on "Cold Mirrors (No. 15)" the tumbleweed can almost be heard blowing through, while "Sea Seizure (No. 19)"starts out rocky, but then abstracts a reggae beat for Halvorson's slurred notes and crab-like runs.

Each number is a world within itself which, though not necessarily hospitable on initial acquaintance, first intrigues and then captivates with repeated listens.

Track Listing: Leak Over Six Five (No. 14); Sequential Tears In It (No. 20); Mile High Like (No. 16); Moon Traps In Seven Rings (No. 17); Sea Seizure (No. 19); Crack In Sky (No. 11); Right Size Too Little (No. 12); Crescent White Singe (No. 13); Cold Mirrors (No. 15); Saturn Sings (No. 18).

Personnel: Jonathan Finalyson: trumpet; Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone; Mary Halvorson: guitar; John Hébert: bass; Ches Smith: drums.

Title: Saturn Sings | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Firehouse 12 Records

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