Mary Halvorson Septet ‘Illusionary Sea’ – Same Great Music, Larger Setting

Mary Halvorson Septet - Illusionary Sea

Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea

When you name an artist as one of your favorite emerging guitarists and composers, and remarking each release has improved upon the last, it sets a high standard for any new release. And while ‘Illusionary Sea’ doesn’t topple ‘Bending Bridges’ as my favorite, it’s a solid album with excellent compositions and great musicianship, and a great addition to her catalog.

Musical Genre: Jazz

Where to buy: Firehouse 12 Records

Artist: Mary Halvorson Septet


From the artist:

At the end of 2011, Mary Halvorson had finished writing two albums’ worth of quintet music and decided she was ready for a new challenge. Thinking of the constant encouragement of her mentor Anthony Braxton to “write for larger ensembles,” Halvorson decided to expand her core ensemble (which already included trio and quintet versions), creating a mini-big band that maintains the trust and rapport of her smaller groups. She says, “Adding to an existing band piece-by-piece feels like completing a puzzle, rather than starting from scratch.”

General Impressions:

When Mary Halvorson released ‘Bending Bridges’ last year she talked about the enhanced sonic palette moving from a trio to a quintet, how she wanted to use the horns to expand her expressive range, in terms of timbre, rhythmic possibilities as well as extended harmonic structures.

Not surprisingly, as her compositions became more intricate moving from ‘Dragon’s Head’ to ‘Saturn Sings’ to ‘Bending Bridges’, she has once again found the need to expand her palette to encompass the musical ideas in her head. For this album she brings in Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone and Jacob Garchik on trombone, rounding out what is actually now a fairly standard configuration.

The level of musicianship is simply stunning from the entire group. Laubrock and Garchik join Halvorson and her existing quintet, consisting of Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone, John Hébert on bass, and Ches Smith on drums. Halvorson has said that she likes working with the same musicians as much as possible to develop a deeper level of communication and shared improvisation.

And it works. I recommend listening to this album with surround headphones or another system with great stereo separation, because that will allow you to appreciate not just the sense of space created in the mix, but also feel the give and take and interplay between the musicians.

There are six Halvorson originals and one cover song – a first for a Halvorson release. The cover is Philip Catherine’s Nairim, which was covered as ‘Maryan’ by Robert Wyatt on his Shleep album. UK prog-rocker Wyatt is one of Halvorson’s heroes, and Shleep features musicians such as Catherine, Evan Parker, Brian Eno, Paul Weller, Phil Manzanera and other ecletic artists. The song is fun here and touching all at once, with the band respectfully handling the original source while bringing their own stylistic stamp to the music.

The remainder of the compositions are some of Halvorson’s best. What really concerned me initially was that in a septet setting her sense of intimacy would be lost amongst the harmonies and rhythmic counterpoint. Fortunately she manages the septet in much the same way as she handled the quintet – as an expanded trio. That sounds odd, but for me the key to her music is rhythmic and harmonic juxtaposition. That all comes from the guitar, bass and drums at the core – and the horns serve as larger extensions of those stations and add melody and timbre as well as further counterpoint.


The songs range from introspective to frenetic, and the musicians are up to the task of each setting. The thing that constantly surprised me was her use of the expanded palette – especially since the title track has an introduction that feels fairly ‘traditional’ in terms of a septet. Jazz combos through the years have established set roles for each instrument … but Halvorson doesn’t care about that. Perhaps she wants a certain timbre in the lower register or a horn working on driving the rhythmic pulse. She never holds back from using the instruments to further her concept.

I mentioned this isn’t my favorite Halvorson recording … but it is my second favorite. ‘Bending Bridges’ was at once a trio and quintet release, and she expertly handled the distinction on that record. ‘Illusionary Sea’ is an amazing recording full of some of her best compositions and great musicianship, but it is purely a septet recording, and I feel that the loss of the ability to hear Halvorson’s ideas stretched out in the trio setting – even for a single song – lessens the intimacy and degree of learning I have come to expect from her work, only if just a bit. Don’t get me wrong – this is a great album, and should be considered a ‘must have’ for fans of her work.

‘Quick Hit’ Song: “Butterfly Orbit” – a great example of everything I love about Mary Halvorson’s music. It starts out with a seemingly simple melodic structure that floats in time while the horns and rhythm section each occupy a different rhythmic and harmonic space.

By the time Jon Irabagon launches into a solo over John Hebert’s driving bass figures things have gotten complex yet compelling. Then it all breaks down and loosens up, and Halvorson adds more harmonic chaos before she and Irabagon trade small figures and fragments that suggest multiple rhythms and chord structures that have little to do with the original song. It is an amazingly complex piece of music that is at once fun and challenging.

Would I recommend?: Absolutely! I mentioned this isn’t my favorite album of hers, a position still occupied by ‘Bending Bridges’. But in terms of playing and compositions Halvorson shows clear progression through the years and I highly recommend it!

Suggested audience: Look … it is STILL Mary Halvorson. This means that it is at best tolerated in my house, and is not something most audiences are open to hearing. During the NPR live stream of the Newport Jazz Festival, I read ‘too weird’ or ‘I don’t get it’ many times during Halvorson’s set – and that is from jazz fans. This music is cerebral and angular and dissonant and requires a high level of engagement.

Price: $9.99 digital / $12.99 CD at Firehouse 12 Records.

Source: Publisher provided review download

Here is a Bandcamp stream for some of the title track:

Categories: Music Diary, Reviews


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