[JPL] Abstruse Sounds Governed by Balance and Contrast

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Feb 11 21:00:07 EST 2008

February 9, 2008
Music Review
Abstruse Sounds Governed by Balance and Contrast 
The young guitarist Mary Halvorson orients herself
around jazz, yet stands about two steps removed from
it. With her hollow-body electric guitar, broadcasting
its natural tone through an amp at low levels, she
seems all set to play standards; no doubt she can and
does. But in her own tossing, prickly trio she seems
more like a folk musician who has spent months in
isolation, building strange chord clusters and then
soldering them together. 

She makes determinedly staccato music, poking and
prodding at you, not naturally melodic. Sometimes it
feels willful in its smartness, as if she’s suspicious
of song. But there’s something else there too,
something undogmatic and generous. She has figured out
some compromise, some positive tension, within herself
and within her band. 

At the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn on Thursday night she
sat down to the left of her bassist, John Hebert, and
her drummer, Ches Smith. They all played from sheet
music, and Ms. Halvorson barely looked away from hers,
glancing down only once in a while at her volume and
delay pedals, which she used with dry restraint. 

As a composer, Ms. Halvorson has just enough of a
sense of concise, melodic curves and harmonic motion
to make her compositions work. “Compositions” is the
right word: they are notated at length, even
three-minute pieces, with pockets for improvising.

Sometimes the improvising functions in unlikely ways.
In one piece Mr. Hebert started a bass solo, got into
it, and then whup: it was over. Was it written that
way? We’ll have to wait until the band’s first record
comes out later this year. 

And as a guitarist, Ms. Halvorson has a candid,
brambly energy. She has an obsession with writing and
improvising through large intervals, which seems like
her debt to the saxophonist Eric Dolphy. 

Mr. Smith’s style was similarly unsentimental and
unslick, but loud and impatient, rushing ahead and
exaggerating and tapering off abruptly; some of that
seems like his debt to Greg Saunier, the drummer in
the rock band Deerhoof. 

Between them was Mr. Hebert, whose role was the
moderating, guiding voice of the jazz tradition. He
played broad, resonant notes, with more of a sense of
swing. It took only a few seconds to see the good
sense in the band: no matter how abstruse the music
can get, it rested on a strong, simple principle of
balance and contrast.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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