18 January 2011

Review: Saturn Sings

Mary Halvorson Quintet
Saturn Sings

I must admit that I am wary of jazz guitarists. I am not too sure why, but I do not have many current guitarists in my iTunes library (those I have are the ones you'd expect: Metheny, Scofield, Frisell). I'm not an anti-guitar guy; I loved Matt Stevens' contributions to Christian Scott's Yesterday You Said Tomorrow and one of my favorite albums of 2010, Polar Bear's Peepers, featured a guitar-heavy rhythm section. But for some reason, I rarely seek out guitar-driven albums. For me to take notice of a new guitarist, the guitarist usually needs to do something I have not seen or heard before. Such is the case with Mary Halvorson, whose latest effort, Saturn Sings, features a unique approach both to the guitar and composition in particular. Sometimes accompanied by trumpeter Jonathan Finalyson and saxophonist Jon Irabagon, other times just with bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith, Halvorson weaves together ten songs that take surprising turns, utilize unconventional meters, and flow with idiosyncratic phrasing. The result keeps me coming back for repeated listens, looking for new moments of beauty uncovered with each tick on the playcount.

Her band includes strong personalities, like Thelonious Monk Competition winner Iarabagon, but this album is clearly Halvorson's show. The tunes are so completely her own (though I can hear flashes of inspiration from Mingus and Shorter, among others), that even her sidemen's solos are colored by her compositional style. Rather than sublimating themselves into her footprint, the sidemen get inside her style, speaking her language while expressing their own thoughts (see for instance Irabagon's solo on Crack In Sky). Halvorson's own playing is dexterous. Halvorson can shift from a flurry of runs along the fretboard into an amelodic thunder of guitarisms utilizing effects pedals and the whammy bar that are truly unique. One thing she does that delights me is the way she makes her intense noises sound whimsical. She produces a wonderful cacophony of sounds both inside and outside the harmonic structure, but her playing contains a playful element which keeps me coming back to this album. I've often thought that a major problem facing jazz today is the fetishization of the new at the expense of music which may not be cutting edge but is nonetheless well-executed and fresh. Saturn Sings has both the excitement of the new and the polish of a veteran group. I can't wait to hear what's next, but I won't tire of the recent offering for a while.

Halvorson plays Sea Seizure (No. 19) at the 2010 Saalfelden Jazz Festival

Personnel: Mary Halvorson, guitar; Jonathan Finalyson, trumpet; Jon Irabagon, alto saxophone; John Hébert, bass; Ches Smith, drums
Track Listing: Leak Over Six Five (No. 14); Sequential Tears In It (No. 20); Mile High Like (No. 16); Moon Traps In Seven Rings (No. 17); Sea Seizure (No. 19); Crack In Sky (No. 11); Right Size Too Little (No. 12); Crescent White Singe (No. 13); Cold Mirrors (No. 15); Saturn Sings (No. 18)

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