Mary Halvorson Septet

Illusionary Sea
Firehouse 12 Records FH12-04-01-017

More enterprising than most of her earlier discs, New York guitarist Mary Halvorson created this series of compositions for an expanded ensemble, most of whose members she works with in other contexts. The results are audacious, proving that the guitarist, who first made her reputation with Anthony Braxton, is a sophisticated composer as well as soloist.

That said many of the tracks have a resemblance to Henry Threadgill’s jaunty writing for similar-sized ensembles. But, as would be expected, while Threadgill emphasizes low brass and rhythm, Halvorson’s weight is more on guitar and saxophones. Dividing the reed duties here are alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, while the rhythm section consists of bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith. Brass power arrives from trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and trombonist Jacob Garchik. Garchik’s and Laubrock’s contributions were added to the others who usually make up the guitarist’s working quintet, so her challenge was reconceptualising the five-part arrangements for seven. Listening to the sympathetic outcome though, you’d never know that the pieces hadn’t been created for that configuration from the get-go.

Circular and bouncy, most of Halvorson’s lines are performed at a galloping pace, with Smith’s clever beat-switching often leading the way. Also common are harmonized pumping from the four-piece horn section, with the raw power often pierced by multi-fingered vamps from the guitarist. Tracks such as “Smiles of Great Men (#34)” and “Butterfly Orbit (#32)” bring out arena-Rock chops from the guitarist with tumescent and distorted twangs and erupting licks. Once stabilized though, the solos stay as far from pop clichés as Slash is from Charlie Christian. On the contrary, Halvorson’s strategy involves replicating slurred fingering or fretless expositions, making the results both sharp and chromatic. Thematic coherence then depends on Laubrock’s slinky, linear work on the first piece and Irabagon’s jabbing vibrations on the latter.

At the same time there is space left on the disc for balladic and atmospheric interpretations, often directed by Hébert’s sensitive bow work. With Smith’s action downshifted to well-spaced clanks and Halvorson’s octave-splitting suitably diffident, Irabagon moves forward with skittering lines or harmonized trills.

Overall Illusionary Sea is no illusion. It’s sufficiently tough to impress those who demand uncompromising Rock-like frenzy, but with a brain; and genial enough to provide amiable tunes, but ones also drained of treacle. This is the prototypical CD from a promising guitarist reaching her maturity. It confirms that as good as she is, Halvorson has many years to become even more proficient as a player and a composer.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Illusionary Sea (#33) 2. Smiles of Great Men (#34) 3. Red Sky Still Sea (#31) 4. Four Pages Of Robots (#30) 5. Fourth Dimensional Confession (#41) 6. Butterfly Orbit (#32) 7. Nairam

Personnel: Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet); Jacob Garchik (trombone); Jon Irabagon (alto saxophone); Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone); Mary Halvorson (guitar); John Hébert (bass) and Ches Smith (drums)