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The Thirteenth Assembly: (un)sentimental

Troy Collins By

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Originally conceived as a touring collective consisting of smaller units sharing common personnel, the Thirteenth Assembly features some of today's brightest talent: cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum; violist Jessica Pavone; guitarist Mary Halvorson; and drummer Tomas Fujiwara—all notable band leaders in the new Brooklyn scene.

A fountainhead of creative improvised music, Brooklyn is witness to countless transitory ensembles and ad-hoc line-ups. What separates the Thirteenth Assembly from similar efforts are its deep roots. No less than three veteran units can be found at the core of this collective: Bynum and Fujiwara's duo; Halvorson and Pavone's duo; and Bynum's trio with Halvorson and Fujiwara. Additionally, all are key members of Bynum's sextet. Despite his prominence in the group's lineage, Bynum is not the Thirteenth Assembly's leader; each member takes a hand in the song writing process, sharing equally both as author and improviser.

They embrace a wide range of stylistic territory on their relatively brief (37 min.) debut, (un)sentimental, exploring a plethora of genres and styles without falling victim to dilettantish post-modern eclecticism. Unlike similar attempts by some of their forebearers, their seamless integration of multiple genres never feels forced or contrived.

After the brief introductory fanfare of Halvorson's chamberesque "Unfinished Ballad," Pavone's soul stirring "Army of Strangers" kicks the album off with a funky little tune that careens ebulliently despite the lack of a bass instrument, driven by Halvorson's sinuous melody lines and Fujiwara's pithy backbeat. Setting a precedent for the rest of the session, each member takes tantalizingly brief, thematically concise solos that balance individual expressionism with formal constraints.

Similarly fervent, Halvorson's metallic "Pinched" stages the guitarist's strident fretwork and Fujiwara's pulverizing downbeats against Bynum and Pavone's anthemic Balkan styled riffs, before dramatically transitioning into effervescent pointillism. Bynum's "Too Sweet" trades kinetic intensity for cerebral drama with a jagged mix of harsh angles and volatile dynamics. "Bird Dog" reveals his mercurial spirit with a melancholy rumination that gradually builds into an epic power ballad driven by Halvorson's acidic power chords and Fujiwara's roiling accents.

Borrowing elements of Afro-Cuban music, Fujiwara's "Chantal" yields a delicious pan-global hybrid with a rousing deconstructed finale. His lithe tone poem "Never Before" finds accord with his peers' more impressionistic fare, such as Halvorson's "P#2" and Pavone's "Hate Fields." The former weaves the kaleidoscopic tendrils of a lush melody into a richly textured mosaic, the later unveils a mellifluous meditation brimming with opulent harmonies, ending the album on an introspective note.

The unified ensemble sound of the Thirteenth Assembly is centered around empathetic communication and a willingness to subvert ego for the good of the group; there is no grandstanding here, only four longstanding friends conspiring to make adventurous yet accessible music. A stunning achievement, (un)sentimental demonstrates the endless possibilities of contemporary music by players at the top of their game.


Track Listing: Unfinished Ballad; Army of Strangers; Bird Dog; P#2; Pinched; Chantal; Too Sweet; Never Before; Hate Fields.

Personnel: Taylor Ho Bynum: cornet; Jessica Pavone: viola; Mary Halvorson: guitar; Tomas Fujiwara: drums.

Title: (un)sentimental | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Important Music

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