Sounds Heard: Mary Halvorson Quintet—Bending Bridges

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Bending Bridges
by Mary Halvorson Quintet
(Firehouse 12)
Performers:
Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet
Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone
Mary Halvorson: guitar
John Hébert: bass
Ches Smith: drums

One of the most excellent things about the music of guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson is that every composition percolates with a charming sense of unpredictability. Bending Bridges is the second release from Halvorson’s quintet, which features members of her original trio—John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums (plus, of course, Halvorson on guitar)—and adds to the ensemble Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone. Although there are plenty of groups comprised of this instrumentation, Halvorson’s preference for a very dry, close recording style lends a hand in giving this album a unusual sound, and in bringing to light instrument balances that serve to highlight her quirky (in a good way) melodic and harmonic sense.

Sinks When She Rounds The Bend (No. 22) begins as a relaxed, even lounge-worthy chorale scored for the whole quintet, giving way to solos for guitar and bass. Before you know it, Halvorson has quietly flipped the distortion switch on her guitar, and busts out a series of fat, grunge-laden power chords propelling trumpet and saxophone through an altered version of that initial chorale, which transforms before our ears into full-tilt improvised chaos.

Hemorrhaging Smiles (No. 25) has a catchy opening groove, with rhythmic guitar and a repeating melodic series for sax and trumpet. The energy continues with a sax solo, and then another for trumpet, placed in front of tinkling guitar and percussion textures. The improvisation sections are contrasted with the initial musical material in a verse/chorus format. Ches Smith contributes interesting and tasteful drum set performances throughout the disc.

Four of the nine tracks on Bending Bridges set aside the brass instruments and feature the original trio of Halvorson, Smith, and Hébert. Stepping-stone style bass and drums in Forgotten Men In Silver (No. 24) follow an impressionistic opening guitar solo, and later a background wash of guitar serves as a blanket for an energetic bass and drum improvisation, rife with extended techniques on both instruments. The next trio work, The Periphery of Scandal (No. 23) features a wacky guitar melody that becomes increasingly intense and distorted throughout the course of the track. The aptly titled That Old Sound (No. 27) does indeed open with an ever so slight Western twang—I kept visualizing a dusty corral and cacti during this mellow track, which sports an elastic sensibility, with instrumental lines expanding and contracting in turn. Deformed Weight Of Hands (No. 28) is an energetic back and forth between a spunky guitar and drum figure, and noisy, frenzied improvisation.

Returning to the quintet format, Love In Eight Colors (No. 21) is one of the more traditionally “jazz” sounding composition on the disc, and there might even be some quotes lifted from other tracks to discover in this one (I will leave that part to you!). All The Clocks (No. 29) also seems to fit well within the realm of guitar-based jazz, featuring lead guitar with spinning melodic material that is complemented by the ensemble performing driving, rhythmic music.

Sea Cut Like Snow (No. 26) strikes my ear as especially thoughtfully composed, and showcases the most successful brass writing of the entire disc. A winding guitar line is offset by shifting repeated-note riffs in the brass that develop gradually and are later joined by a funky, almost Latin beat. The established groove is then again transformed into a rollickingly fast drum and sax duet, and winds up in a bending, spindly solo guitar line.

Halvorson has cited in interviews how large a role the simple element of time—spent playing and performing together—plays in her compositions for the quintet. She is gaining confidence in writing for the entire group, and they are all playing together increasingly well. Although I think the trio sounds more musically integrated (and indeed it should, since they have been together longer), the addition of saxophone and trumpet as she treats them in her compositions brings a wonderfully offbeat sound world into the music. It will be very interesting to hear how her writing for the quintet evolves in the future. Whatever form it takes, I have no doubt that there will be plenty of surprises in store.

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