Mary Halvorson Octet – Away With You – Firehouse

Guitarist Mary Halvorson expands her band and her compositional strengths.

Mary Halvorson Octet – Away With You [TrackList follows] – Firehouse 12 FH12-04-01-024, 55:53 [10/28/16] ****:

(Jonathan Finlayson – trumpet; Jon Irabagon – alto saxophone; Ingrid Laubrock – tenor saxophone; Jacob Garchik – trombone; Mary Halvorson – guitar; Susan Alcorn – pedal steel guitar; John Hébert – bass; Ches Smith – drums)

There’s freedom tension, dynamics, visceral improvisation and a varied stretch of jazz on the nearly-hour long Away With You, from guitarist Mary Halvorson and her innovative octet. Those who have been following Halvorson’s ascension in the modern jazz scene—she’s spent time with Anthony Braxton, Marc Ribot, Taylor Ho Bynum, Ingrid Laubrock, plus others—can attest that no matter the setting, (whether solo guitar, leading her own band, or performing with other musicians) Halvorson brings her unique style, restless creativity and artistic nonconformity to everything she does. Halvorson’s eight original tracks which make up Away With You share an edginess, a way of bending jazz parameters into contrasts which are shaped into distinctively stimulating compositions.

Those hoping for a guitar-heavy approach may be disappointed. Yes, guitar is ever-present, but Halvorson maintains an ensemble sound throughout, where the electric guitar is part of a larger whole, an aggregate encompassing Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet, the alto sax of Jon Irabagon (who is a member of Mostly Other People Do the Killing), tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, trombonist Jacob Garchik, bassist John Hébert, drummer Ches Smith, and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, the newest participant in Halvorson’s ever-expanding group.

Unlike some modern jazz, Halvorson’s material has a convincing emotive center and is continually absorbing, even when or if cacophony rears up or the music has sudden shifts. The opener, “Spirit Splitter,” is a good example. There is a melodic and joyful introduction with fine horn interaction, which propels the track, and it is clear Halvorson wants to fashion music which is an experience: it can be appreciated for its ‘outsider’ stance but it is also meant to be liked. The six-minute piece has a cavorting-like deportment, sometimes a bit wonky when it heads toward the periphery, but “Spirit Splitter” never goes off the rails into unknown terrain.

The way pedal steel guitar is employed is beyond just window-dressing or merely another rhythmic element. Case in point is the lengthiest cut, the 10-minute “The Absolute Almost,” which commences with Alcorn’s sedate, Bill Frisell-like melodic lines. Halvorson gradually glides in and they form an iridescent and lightly spooky duet. The music becomes even ghostlier as Hébert adds his echoic bass lines and arco. Horns and percussion arise about halfway through, and the rest of the arrangement swings with rhythmic and tonal expression, with melodic abandonment by the conclusion.

It’s interesting to hear how different instruments contrast or develop an equilibrium on specific numbers. “Fog Bank” features Garchik’s trombone at the forefront, but is juxtaposed against Alcorn’s reverberating and yet dissonant pedal steel, while Hébert sustains a melodic core as Smith carries the rhythmic epicenter. “Old King Misfit” leads off as an Hébert solo spotlight (where he showcases his stunning percussive and oddly-turning rhythmic style). Then the track transforms as sashaying, clipped horns stand out against the bass lines, and the tune alters course to become something akin to an orchestral Gary Lucas excursion. Then there is the closer, the nearly nine-minute “Inky Ribbons,” which is a granulated highlight for Finlayson’s fluid trumpet and Irabagon’s suffused alto sax, where the octet unhurriedly circles around in slow motion, as if gravity had become molten and lava-esque. The deliberate movement steadily disappears and by the middle of “Inky Ribbons,” the structure modifies to a steady and propulsive groove. Some folks talk or write about Halvorson’s contemporary chops, her guitar talents. Away With You isn’t about providing a display case for Halvorson the six-string bender, but rather Halvorson the bandleader. Whether it’s sublime moments of beauty or exultant discord, Away With You confirms Halvorson is creating harmonically, multifaceted and animate music which is enticing even as it heads to the farther frontier of current jazz.

TrackList: Spirit Splitter (No. 54); Away With You (No. 55); The Absolute Almost (No. 52); Sword Barrel (No. 58); Old King Misfit (No. 57); Fog Bank (No. 56); Safety Orange (No. 59); Inky Ribbons (No. 53)

—Doug Simpson

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