Jazz Review: “Bending Bridges” – Mary Halvorson Changes the Musical Conversation

If you have a taste for something different that also has some depth and heft, then guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson’s new album may be just what you’re looking for.

Mary Halvorson plays at the Lily Pad, Cambridge, MA, on Friday, June 8th.

Here is The Arts Fuse’s review of the Lily Pad concert — an evening that included guitarist Joe Morris.

Bending Bridges by the Mary Halvorson Quintet. Firehouse 12 Records.

By Steve Mossberg

From its earliest days, jazz has been a referential art form. The early Dixieland bands improvised on New Orleans funeral music. In the 50s, the beboppers played turbo-charged abstract versions of popular songs. Modern jazzers channeled aggression from the heavy rock of the 60s and 70s into fusion. Nowadays, most talented composers and performers are in a heated dialogue with either the overwhelming sonic glut around them or the overbearing tradition of jazz’s musical past. To her credit, Mary Halvorson sounds like she wants to start a different kind of conversation.

On Bending Bridges, the Brookline-bred, Brooklyn-based guitarist/composer has constructed a disc that stands alone on its own musical hill. While strains of indie-rock, baroque music, heavy metal, blues, and avant-garde jazz whiz by on occasion, they are liberated from undue loyalty to history via the deftness of her compositional hand. The members of her quintet have strongly individual and highly sensitive voices, interpreting the material in a thoughtful but vital manner. The result is a decidedly original outing, brash and compelling from the get-go and easier on the ears with each repeated listening.

On guitar, Halvorson sounds simultaneously like a virtuoso and a curious child laying hands on the instrument for the first time. She supports her compositions by outlining them in a jagged fashion, taking disjunct leads that don’t so much give the impression of a bird in flight than a flash of fireflies lighting up at random. Chopped chords and tangled, dry-picked melodic lines erupt on every corner of the recording, interrupted by spasms of distortion and the elastic spring of her trademark pitch-bending pedal. Halvorson’s sound, like that of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and Thelonious Monk, is instantly recognizable, music based on personal expression rather than mind-boggling technique.

Just as identifiable is the powerful effect of Halvorson’s five-year-old core trio, with John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums. Both Hebert, the versatile Andrew Hill veteran, and Smith, the prolific, punk-rock/free-jazz crossover man, bring a “fight for your life” attitude to their playing. Smith draws accurate yet highly unpredictable lines through the straightest passages of “The Deformed Weight of Hands,” his playing giving off an air of sustained spontaneity. Hebert follows suit, moving freely between lock-step unison playing, slinky support lines, and hazy, spaced-out suggestions of the music’s harmonic borders. In “Forgotten Men In Silver,” Smith and Halvorson demolish the music with crashes, clicks, and rattles, while Hebert frantically bows vibrant atonalities from his instrument. Given the element of surprise supplied by Smith’s percussion and Halvorson’s bold steering, the ensemble’s sound is endlessly deep and urgent.

The trio is joined by alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson on five of the album’s nine tracks. Irabagon has been prevalent on the scene in both inside and outside ensembles since winning the Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition in 2008, and Finlayson has had the distinction of standing toe-to-toe with Steve Coleman on his more recent Five Elements recordings. These top tier players inhabit the ensemble’s more traditional sonic spaces. In general, the timbres the pair use are clean and straightforward, leaving the scraping, screaming, and rumbling to the rhythm section.

On “Hemorrhaging Smiles,” Halvorson makes use of Irabagon and Finlayson in a faux-naïve series of two-finger piano chords, an exercise that generates emotion and excitement despite the complete absence of a melody. Near the climax of the piece, Irabagon is propelled into a masterful solo in which he develops an impassioned, high arcing melody out of the tiniest of motifs. On the poignant “Sea Cut Like Snow,” the pair play aching, throbbing responses to Halvorson’s melody. Finlayson’s solo statement becomes romantic as it tiptoes precariously along an increasingly wobbly road of bent guitar chords.

The album’s centerpiece is the ambitious “Love in Eight Colors,” which serves as a neat, 10-minute summary of the album’s ideals. Rolling in on a wave of interlocking counterpoint, Irabagon and Finlayson slowly climb, side by side, up a rising melodic slope. At the summit, Halvorson supplies staccato attacks; Hebert and Smith join in with percussive statements and the entire group joins into a dizzying battle. When the dust clears, Finlayson, at first silenced by the conflict, rips off into a fiery jazz arioso, which evolves into a tense duet with Halvorson’s insistent guitar. Seamlessly crossing from improvisation into composition, the group threatens to lapse into a standard a blues-like passage, but instead it sneaks further and further into unexpected territory. Smith brings the music back to its ascending beginning at the finish; he provides an intense solo that draws on his metal background without heading back to the rock club or drum rise.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson — she sounds simultaneously like a virtuoso and a curious child laying hands on the instrument for the first time. Photo: Nick Loyld

Such is the secret to the individuality, depth, and appeal of Bending Bridges. The composer and companions seem to say “sure, we like punk rock, or contemporary classical, or whatever. Maybe you do too. We’re all living in this world together and we’ve shared a lot of listening experiences. Now, listen to this.” Unconcerned with competition, the performers go about the business of charting new territory while coolly sidestepping the trap of shallow novelty. For all the innovation and intellect of its music, Bending Bridges is always honestly and unabashedly human.

1 Comment

  1. J. R. Carroll on June 4, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Mary Halvorson will also be playing the night before (Thursday, June 7) at the Discover Jazz Festival in Burlington, Vermont. It’s the same band–the quintet from Bending Bridges with her frequent collaborator, Tomas Fujiwara, filling in for Ches Smith on drums.

    Fascinating recording–I’ve been streaming it from the FIrehouse 12 site and plan to pick up a copy at her gig on Friday. Definitely an original voice–she’s been on the Arts Fuse radar for a while.

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