By Steve Feeney
New albums from Mary Halvorson and Rich Halley march into fresh realms of freedom.
Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12 Records)
Rich Halley – The Shape of Things (Pine Eagle Records)
Whether with words or without them, jazz has a way of communicating.
Perhaps fueled by her MacArthur Foundation fellowship, guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson’s natural inclination to expand her artistic boundaries has driven a number of recent small group recordings on the Firehouse 12 label. She is, without question, one of our era’s most fascinating artists.
2018’s two-CD Code Girl was widely lauded by critics as a major step forward in introducing vocalized lyrics to her challenging compositions for quintet. The combination of sung poetry and hard-edged, chamber jazz made for a particularly stimulating brew.
Now comes Artlessly Falling, a single disc follow-up that adds more voices and another horn to further explore the point at which words and music meet, mingle, and (hopefully) mate.
The core of the band is made up of the trio that often records separately under the name Thumbscrew. Halvorson, along with Michael Formanek on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, can churn up a prickly intensity yet the group can also turn quickly, when called upon, to provide nuanced shadings of interplay.
The fact that each piece on the new disc represents a different poetic form (villanelle, double tanka, free verse, etc.) makes one suspect that this is might be an exercise in academic point-scoring But the pieces here contain compelling (if often dadaesque) imagery worthy of closer analysis. Or, if you prefer, you can just take a bracing dip into the album and experience what it makes you think and feel.
“Muzzling Unwashed” starts with an extended intro from Thumbscrew, establishing a sonic edge before the vocals begin. The voice of Amirtha Kidambi, returning from the earlier album, harmonizes with that of Maria Grand in a sort of soulful sprechstimme, lamenting “Fruitless attempts to salvage all the butterflies” and so on.
Adam O’Farrill offers some choice trumpet playing, reminiscent of the formal expressiveness of Dave Douglas, on a piece that oddly, swings aplenty on the strength of extra-musical rhythms brought to bear (sonic translation?) by intelligent musicians.
An unexpected treat on the disc is the vocal appearance of 75-year-old jazz/rock legend Robert Wyatt on three cuts. His slightly frail, late-season rendition of “Bigger Flames,” though it might strike some as affected, is so sweet and gentle that you can easily conjure up Halvorson’s impressionistic evocation of “A coy curtsying earthquake.” The beautiful, lilting melody of this moving piece is enhanced by Grand’s melancholy tenor sax, which accepts an invitation to dance with O’Farrill’s sturdier trumpet.
Halvorson gets her guitar hero(ine) on for “Walls and Roses,” a pantoum during which Wyatt warns that “Subletting a swarm of lives” may be dangerous. So can the guitarist be when she cranks it up.
The title cut, inspired by the sestina form, presents the listener with Halvorson’s twisted arpeggios underpinning Kidambi’s word picture of “Trucks blanket Brooklyn with sheets of salt” over “The chill of your love.” Collective improvisation ensues as the rest of the band joins in for a surreal spin outside.
Speaking of outside, words become howls and screams in Rich Halley’s sound world. The tenor saxophonist’s quartet, including Matthew Shipp (piano), Michael Bisio (bass), and Newman Taylor Baker (drums) speaks, nonetheless, with extraordinary, if at times frantic, eloquence.
The Shape of Things is the second release from the group and redoubles the expressive energy bursts on last year’s Terra Incognita.
“Tetrahedron” offers the four sides of the group in full surge, quickly establishing their combined strengths via full-tilt free playing. The coordinated clamor of Bisio and Baker effectively undergirds Halley’s and Shipp’s edge-expanding improvisations. The piece quiets down into a reflective reverie that, in its way, is restless, seeking the place beyond words where free jazz goes to roam.
A walking bass line guides “Vector” as the leader and Shipp choose fertile ways through the open-ended paths of experimentation born decades ago. “Oblique Angles” has Shipp and Halley playfully zigging and zagging around an itchy motif. The pianist, whose approach sometimes calls to mind the inventive explorations of Andrew Hill, constructs the DNA for the animalistic fervor of Halley’s final shriek.
“The Curved Horizon” goes on a quest for an even more chaotic space, with Shipp pounding out a base that inspires Halley to revel in stretches made up of long and short outbursts. When gravitational harmony reasserts itself, Shipp takes off on a fast run — floating above the churning rhythm, testing alternatives that flirt with surrendering to melody. Bass and drum solos lead into and out of fierce final forays by Halley. A closing sort of march segment suggests that this fearless group will carry on into fresh realms of freedom.
Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.