Mary Halvorson Septet: Illusionary Sea
Firehouse 12 Records

Guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson has come a remarkably long way in a relatively short time. Following jazz studies at Wesleyan University and the New School, she began making a name for herself in New York jazz circles and during the past decade has worked with an impressive range of artists and established a number of bands. Currently active are trio (the guitarist with bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith) and quintet outfits (trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon added to the trio) as well as a chamber-jazz duo she co-leads with violist Jessica Pavone; Halvorson also regularly plays in bands led by Tim Berne, Myra Melford, and Anthony Braxton, among others. Her latest release Illusionary Sea is not only her fourth album as a leader but the debut recording of her seven-piece ensemble, which expands upon the quintet with the addition of tenor sax player Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik.

Not only has Halvorson built up a strong reputation as a player with her own distinctive voice (not an easy thing to do in a field of music filled with precursors of towering influence), but she's established herself as a formidable composer, as exemplified by the material featured on Dragon's Head (2008), Saturn Sings (2010), and Bending Bridges (2012). The new album also argues strongly for her composing gifts in featuring six originals, with the seventh a cover (the first one, in fact, to appear of any of her albums as leader) of Philip Catherine's “Nairam,” which one of Halvorson's musical heroes, Robert Wyatt, recorded under the title “Maryan” (on Shleep).

She also meets the considerable challenge of writing arrangements for a seven-member ensemble, a tricky thing to do in general but even more so when the players' individual voices are so powerful. Hearing the way their lines are woven into her intricate yet eminently musical compositions provides one of the album's greatest pleasures, and the musicians manage to express their individual voices whilst at the same time establishing a collective identity. An effective balance is struck between formal composition and soloing, but to her credit Halvorson never opts for a simple theme-solos-theme approach; instead, the soloing emerges from within the structure of the composition. That sense of fluidity also extends to arrangements that eschew the familiar practice of one musician soloing and others laying out; instead, throughout Illusionary Sea, when one player solos, the others back the musician with contrapuntal lines, and the music is considerably enriched as a result. As a representative example, the opening title track strikes an excellent balance between formal structure and soloing, with Smith in particular showing just how valuable his technically proficient-yet-loose playing is to the group. Needless to say, the other musicians acquit themselves equally well.

Halvorson asserts herself conspicuously in the irreverent “Smiles of Great Men,” her strums and spidery lines putting timbral distance between herself and the horns and her playing growing increasingly bold and scrabbly during the solo; a remarkable solo turn proves ear-catching during “Butterfly Orbit,” and she also contributes some wild skronk to the closing moments of “Four Pages of Robots” and an out-there solo to “Fourth Dimensional Confession.” But while her instrumental presence is strong, Illusionary Sea is not a vehicle for Mary Halvorson the soloist. Instead, the recording's primary focal points are the septet as a collective unit and the compositions. In addition to a memorably warm rendering of “Nairam,” the fifty-minute recording also reveals her affinity for dirge-like forms, as exemplified by “Red Sky Still Sea” and “Fourth Dimensional Confession.”

Halvorson's is an advanced and forward-thinking sensibility; while she might draw from the works of others (there are moments on Illusionary Sea that remind one of Tim Berne, for example, and the intricate arrangements and knotty compositions suggest one conceivably could regard Halvorson and Henry Threadgill as kindred spirits), she's no prisoner of tradition. Instead, the album shows that this fearless guitarist/composer is clearly forging her own distinctive path.

October 2013