Mary Halvorson Octet: Away With You
Firehouse 12 Records

The maturation process isn't something that can be willed into being; no matter how much a musician might wish to play as he or she might ten years from now, such a goal can't be reached except by putting in the work day after day. That being said, one exception to that rule could be guitarist Mary Halvorson, who has matured at an incredibly fast clip. Her latest ensemble recording shows how much she's advanced as a composer, player, and arranger in a relatively short time, and the crew she's got with her is remarkable, too, many of them long-time associates with whom she's established a strong rapport: Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Jon Irabagon (alto sax), Ingrid Laubrock (tenor sax), Jacob Garchik (trombone), John Hébert (acoustic bass), and Ches Smith (drums). New to the mix is pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, an addition that brings an exciting new dimension to the Octet sound.

Halvorson's rapid development can be attributed in part to the large number of musical contexts within which she plays; that she can keep her schedule straight is frankly a small miracle in itself, and she's somehow also managed to fit into her schedule time enough to prepare material for this excellent new album. The latter point is especially relevant when Away With You isn't a straight-up blowing session, the kind of thing where musicians run through a tune, pin down the soloing order, and hit record. In this case, intricate, multi-part compositions are performed, many involving sweeping changes in tempo and dynamics. The range of instrumental colour is a definite selling-point, with the warmth of the horns nicely offset by the guitar timbres, and the material itself moves comfortably between dirges, marches, ballads, and free-form, sometimes in the same piece.

I'm happy to hear Halvorson play in any context, be it solo or in a trio such as Thumbscrew. But there's something extra special about hearing her in the Octet, given that the eight-member format provides such a splendid vehicle for her writing and arrangements. Nowhere is that better shown than in the opener “Spirit Splitter,” whose layered horn patterns are truly ear-catching. By turns mellifluous and jaunty, the tune neatly folds the leader's spidery guitar lines in amongst interwoven trumpet and sax punctuations, with the arrangement not so tightly woven that individual statements can't emerge from the whole. As strong is the title cut for the clever way a quasi-funky guitar part alternates with drums before a robust front-line of horns and saxes appears.

As detail-packed settings such as “Spirit Splitter” and “Safety Orange” illustrate, Away With You is clearly about ensemble playing, yet solo spotlights are also plentiful. Halvorson has her share, but so too do Smith (the title cut), Hébert (“Old King Misfit”), Garchik (“Fog Bank”), Alcorn (“The Absolute Almost”), Laubrock (“Inky Ribbons”), Finlayson (“Sword Barrel”), and others. A constant flow of fresh ideas elevates the hour-long recording significantly above the norm, and the musicians execute the compositions with an appealing looseness despite their oft-complex character.

October 2016