I reviewed Mary Halvorson’s ‘Saturn Sings’ last year, concluding :
Halvorson has been called the most talented and creative guitarist in a generation, and I don’t attribute that to either hyperbole or to her gender – she is an amazing guitar talent who has proven herself in side roles with some of the major figures in jazz. As a solo artist she soars with unique and original compositions and improvisational techniques that are tremendously fresh and challenging and listenable all at once. This is absolutely one of my favorite recordings of 2010.
Since then she has released a collaborative recording called ‘Electric Fruit’, and is in preparation for another Quintet recording which is out this week (my review will also be along soon!). But at the end of last year Halvorson and long time collaborator Jessica Pavone released an album of duets called ‘Departure of Reason’. Let’s take a look!
For many people, the ability to assign a genre to a recording is very important. If you are one of those people, you might want to avoid this recording … and pretty much anything from either of these artists. One of the defining things of these duets is that you can find bits of just about anything you want – from folk to jazz to classical to rock to experimental music and more. It isn’t that the artists are meandering, but rather that these forms inform and influence their styles and stories and flow through all that they do.
The first three songs lay the course for everything that comes after. ‘That Other Thing’ is beautiful and powerful, and the most straight-ahead piece on the recording. Clear rhythm, beautiful melody played off against a strong harmonic structure, with engaging solos from both Halvorson and Pavone, it is a song that invites you in to explore the recording.
But as my family quickly found out, Admiral Akbar was right – it is a trap! From the opening dissonant chords of ‘Hyphen’ my younger son asked ‘this is going to get crazy, isn’t it’? And while ‘Hyphen’ is fairly serene, it contains enough discord to make the casual listener realize that perhaps ‘That Other Thing’ wasn’t indicative of the rest of the recording. And for fans of the duet, it is a confirmation that there is some great stuff ahead!
By the end of ‘The Object of Tuesday’ all casual listeners will have left the room. Yet this is also where the album kicks into high gear and never looks back. The song features the two women performing a rhythmic chant vocal that tells some sort of story that accompanues the music. There is little improvisation, but the song remains free-flowing even against the stocatto echo-effect of the repeated vocals.
The next several songs continue the theme: Begin Again starts with an almost sitar-like guitar figure against the drone of the viola, then moves into a bright and cheerign chord sequence that again devolves and deconstructs itself before … yep, beginning again. Onslaught has the feel of a beautiful folk song, with a wonderful sprighty melodic figure that will have your head bob while your foot taps. Both artists play around with the melody and rhythm in limited amounts, just enough to keep you engaged in the experience.
New October is either deceptively harmonic or deceptively non-harmonic depending on your path to the music. I was listening to the album as I cooked the other night and only noted the darkness in the structures and a raw energy, whereas my kids found considerable tension in the use of dissonance and distortion. Saturn is another song with a folksy feel from the start, but again with darker themes that flow into a darker feeling vocal track, with each woman represented in a stereo channel. It is in Saturn that you see the confluence of genres and at the same time the uselessness of assigning genres.
The final three songs – Ruth Romain, Ruin and Why Should You Surrender – close out the album in much the same way the first songs provided an apt opening. Ruth Romain feels like it could be part of a soundtrack for much of the song, yet takes off in unexpected directions as Pavone and Halvorson play off each other with one taking the lead while the other supports. Ruin starts with some familiar themes but quickly heads in its own directions, with each instrument complementing the other as they traverse lines. There is a great deal of through-composed material in Ruin, but also loads of space for improvisation. After a couple of minutes a unison melody over a bouncy rhythm emerges that is catchy but keeps enough background dissonance and takes enough sidetrips that you never become totally comfortable.
The album ends with Why Should You Surrender, which is a beautifully written composition with more intriguing vocal work that serves to advance the dichotomy of word and sound. Jessica Pavone produces a majestic solo that is perhaps her finest work on the album before the song returns to the vocalists and then breaks down into fully distorted improvised section that takes the album as far afield as it will go. The song returns for the final minute with a harmonious vocal that asks to what you should surrender?
It is the perfect ending for an infectious and challenging recording. For me, I choose to surrender to this very well composed and performed recording. The two performers have been playing together for years, and it shows by how many risks they take together instrumentally. Each seems to have perfect trust in the other, and that pays off throughout the journey over the course of these songs.
Choice Track (and why): Begin Again – mixing beauty and chaos in an amazingly engaging way, Begin again represents everything I love about this album and all of the music of Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone that I have heard from the last several years. It is grounded, yet free; harmonic, yet challenging; composed, yet improvised. Above all it is a genuine artistic statement without pretense.
You Might Love This If: You love excellent duets, guitar and viola music, challenging eclectic mixes of music or just something you have never heard before.
Where to Buy: iTunes Music Store – $9.90
Here is a video of Mary & Jessica at the Hideout in Chicago in 2008: