This a fresh and valuable document of the current underground avant-garde improvisation scene in New York, offered in minimal, attractive packaging and self-released on a small scale by Tatsuya Nakatani, the most well-known and widely-published musician of the trio. The only time I've heard Mary Halvorson previously was in a performance of MP3, drummer Mike Pride's melodic, energized compositional unit rounded out by Trevor Dunn. There she caught my attention with spiky, angular, single-note runs on her clean-toned electric hollow-body guitar that suggested late '60s Larry Coryell without the virtuosity, but also moments of carefully controlled timbral creativity a la Nels Cline.
But coming of out of the fertile Braxtonian milieu of Wesleyan University, it's not surprising that she's able to filter her characteristic style to match the more subtle, open context of the present trio. Halvorson typically plays with a conventional technique, from speedy bursts of single notes with clever phrasing to isolated ringing notes, but occasionally dips into the guitar's extended vocabulary when the other two musicians create the right context with their growling, buzzing, scraping, shimmering sounds.
A few striking passages on the disc occur when Halvorson confidently locks into calm, languid conventional guitar gestures that contrast with the busy abstractions of Nakatani's broad percussive palette and Clayton Thomas' bass violin. A good example is found on the first track, where Halvorson's clear, ringing guitar tones create a subdued matrix for scratches, scrapes, and bowed-cymbal speed-riffing. We also find evidence that Halvorson has a clever grasp of real-time processing technology when this brilliant short piece ends in a sudden brief flurry of rapid guitar squiggles that sound different in the left and right channels. Another impressive guitar passage is found on track 3, where Halvorson gets extra mileage out of individual notes with pitch-bending smears and nosedives amidst the atmospheric resonances of Nakatani's cymbals and bells.
The disc plays like an inspired short (36 minute) live set where the musicians cover a lot of territory in an uncontrived, unpredictable way, and it makes for a perfect one-sitting listen. As with many of Nakatani's free improv sessions, the music gravitates towards a quasi-Asian sparse, ritualistic vibe but the trio never lingers in one area for very long, and there are some surprising twists, including the quiet, super-fast hammered string sounds in the beginning of track 3 and, later in the same track, a section of speedy, nimble guitar/bass/drums free jazz ala one of Joe Morris' trios in out blowing mode.
Nakatani is in fine form on this disc, cycling through his percussive techniques with equal sensitivity to atmospheric elegance and frantic rawness. We even find a brief bit on track 4 where he seems to juggle a handful of different techniques with Jim Black-ish snap-crackle-pop flair. In sum, these are detail-oriented explorations of timbre and texture that avoid heavy-handed or gratuitous elements. As with most good free improvisation, it warrants several listens because it will sound different each time as new details and relationships are revealed.
This recording is available from Squidco on the web.
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Mary Halvorson - guitar; Clayton Thomas - bass; Tatsuya Nakatani - percussion.