Mary Halvorson Tops Her Critically Acclaimed Last Album with ‘Bending Bridges’

Mary Halvorson Quintet – ‘Bending Bridges’
Mary Halvorson Tops Her Critically Acclaimed Last Album with 'Bending Bridges'

In late 2010 Mary Halvorson released Saturn Sings, her second recording as a leader and first with her quintet. Building on the acclaimed trio debut ‘Dragon’s Head’, Saturn Sings was immediately acclaimed and landed on Top 10 lists across the world of jazz critics. I found it a stunningly original and creative work, saying “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.”

Now, just a few months after releasing a set of duets with Jessica Pavone, Halvorson and her quintet are back with ‘Bending Bridges’; so let’s see how she followed up the massive critical success of Saturn Sings.

One of the key attractions for many to ‘Saturn Sings’ was the way in which the ensemble managed to simultaneously play ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, meaning that her music has rhythm, a harmonic structure and melody … but that those things are sometimes more of a ‘suggestion’ than a rule. There are semitonal shifts, polyrhythms, unexpected twists and turns, and plenty of dissonance and enharmonic tones.

But all of that stuff is really just infrastructure which is the parlance of music geeks such as myself, and what REALLY made ‘Saturn Sings’ click with critics and fans alike was the level of musicianship, interplay and improvisation, and the strong compositions. She had already established an amazing trio on ‘Dragon’s Head’ in 2008 with bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith, and the addition of Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone broadened the palette without narrowing the space for improvisation.

It was a winning formula in 2012, and in the last couple of years things have simply gotten better in every possible way. While I will get into more detail on the individual songs, the experience of playing as a band has added even more depth to the risks the musicians take, to the level of communication, and to the way that they can anticipate each other’s musical moves do deftly and provide key support and counterpoint that makes every song shine even brighter than it would have without the experience.

Starting off with Sinks When She Rounds The Bend (No. 22), Halvorson sets the tone for the entire album: the melodic statements are there but build and grow slowly and organically. When she makes a solo statement it is not a ‘blowing session’, but done in the context of the melody played by the others. Surprises abound, as Hebert makes a solo statement just as it seemed the composition would head in the typical direction of horn solos. When the song returns there is a fierce energy and suddenly Halvorson isleaning on her distortion box while playing a chromatic backdrop that propels the song urgently forward towards a dissonent crescendo. For a song that started introspectively, the conclusion is a gorgeously and freely improvised sea of power and energy.

The next song Hemorrhaging Smiles (No. 25) also features the full quintet, with an upbeat funk vamp with an infectious horn lead bridged by an ascending chromatic figure on the guitar. I was reminded of Bill Bruford’s Earthworks with Greg Osby and Henry Threadgill from the ‘Easily Slip Into Another World’ as I listened to the way the song developed, and the directions Irabagon took during his solo. Both he and Jonathon Finlayson get a great chance to stretch out over the funky structures and are given excellent support from Hebert, Smith and Halvorson. And just when Finlayson has taken things so far afield that it is hard to remember where they started, the band comes charging in with the theme again.

As I mentioned the group grew from an established trio, and Halvorson features the trio on four of the nine songs. The first of these is Forgotten Men In Silver (No. 24), which Halvorson starts with a bright acoustic-sounding strum on her Guild that suggests an airy and impressionistic style (well, with some dissonance and fascinating chord choices thrown in for good measure) – which is immediately dispelled when Hebert and Smith start to play. The main theme persists and deepens through Halvorson’s guitar while the bass and drum strain against the flow. It is the type of seemingly simple one-minute segment of music that gets more intriguing with each listen, as the bass and drum shift the beat around, moving emphasis to give the feel of shifting time signatures, and playing off each other to create dynamic tension. But then at just under the two minute mark, Halvorson plays a figure that sounds like a sped up version of the main theme which immediately veers off into one of my favorite parts of the entire album. The drum and bass are freely improvising, with Halvorson playing a heavily strummed swirling figure that is hypnotic and exciting and tense all at once. After about thirty seconds it is over and we land in a section that made me think of Circle’s The Paris Concert, with Hebert playing a combination of picked and bowed lines that would make Dave Holland proud, and Smith sounding like Barry Altschul mixed with Billy Cobham and Halvorson combining Chick Corea and her mentor Anthony Braxton. It is a great song that showcases why this is such a tremendous combination of musicians.

Love In Eight Colors (No. 21) is a return to the quintet format, and is an epic composition that features different themes and tonal colors centered around each of the members of the quintet. The main theme has a laid back groove, with Halvorson’s support playing reminding me of a vibraphone and giving the introduction a very classic feel before things move into a syncopated feel that immediately put me into the mindset of the Art Ensemble of Chicago as Finlayson takes an extended solo break. The song feels more like a suite, with different sections and movements coming and going, but with related themes carrying throughout. It features some of the most inspired group improvisation on the album – which I found surprising given the relatively straight-ahead start. Jon Irabagon shines tremendously and the interplay between him and Halvorson yields surprises with each listen.

The next couple of songs are trio pieces. The Periphery Of Scandal (No. 23) starts with a melody played in a way that reminds me of some of the great modern guitarists such as John Scofield and John Abercrombie. Both share a penchant for jagged, angular lines … but Mary Halvorson has a style all her own, which is quickly apparent. This is the most ‘rock-oriented’ song, but it is really not so much rock as it is a hard driving, intense feel. After the main theme, Halvorson has an almost introspective section where she strums chords while Hebert takes the lead, but soon she cannot be contained and the strumming becomes more jagged, warped and finally she flips on the distortion effect. I was actually surprised that at the end the trio circled back to the main theme, but left the last phrase incomplete in a way that suggests a question mark at the close.

That Old Sound (No. 27) is the most ‘laid back’ track, and brought Pat Metheny’s album ‘What’s It All About’ or his earlier ‘One Quiet Night’ to mind in spirit if not substance. It is reflective and melancholy at times, but not sentimental and uncompromising in the same way as all of Halvorson’s guitar work. It is the prettiest song on the album but maintains a uniquely Halvorson approach throughout.

After two trio pieces we return to the full quintet with Sea Cut Like Snow (No. 26), which is a great reminder of why everyone talks about Mary Halvorson’s compositions and why everyone is crazy about Jon Irabagon. Starting with a repeated minor sounding figure, the composition quickly branches into a variety of directions but all of the soloists stay true to the use of repeated figures and a relatively small palette of notes. Hebert and Halverson occupy nearly the same harmonic space for a time while creating what sounds like a duet within a quintet composition. When Finlayson’s solo ends Hebert and Smith begin laying down a swinging groove so thick and heavy it always gets me moving and then Irabagon layers his solo on top. Like everything else the piece quickly deconstructs itself towards the end of his statement, and has become more of a dirge when Halvorson takes the center. The song began with a melancholy feel and ends with a decidedly ‘down’ mood, but has quite a journey in between.

The final trio piece is also my favorite song on the album. Deformed Weight Of Hands (No. 28) starts with a chord-based melody played against a funky vamp from bass and drums, which opens up into a combination of chordal and single-note melody elements played against some stop-time rhythms. Then at about 45 seconds in the distortion pedal kicks infor a few seconds in a powerful statement, which immediately switches off into a hard-swinging break before returning to the opening funk section for an expanded look at the melody. As noted, this is my favorite track, so I will mention more at the end.

As an interesting aside, the way my review copy entered into my iTunes library had the final song – All The Clocks (No. 29) – as the lead-off when I synced up to my iPod Touch for the car. The reason I mention this is because the opening guitar figure Halvorson plays is something that I have heard from people such as Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, Barney Kessell and others. But within a few measures it devolves into something that ONLY Mary Halvorson could play. I saw it as an opening salvo showing herself within the tradition of jazz guitarists but also uniquely her own artist. And while having it on the last song changes the placement, it doesn’t lessen the impact of the statement. Halvorson plays an introduction that veers from traditional to abstract and then quickly returns to somewhere in the middle as the band joins the fray. The melody is gorgeous and energetic, yet the structure remains as intricate as everything else on the album. Each musician makes a vital contribution and it is a wonderful way to close the album – just as it would have been a great opener. This is the song that ‘makes the most sense’ (to quote my family) to non-jazz folks, but still contains everything essential to understanding what Mary Halvorson brings to modern music.

Bending Bridges came out about two weeks ago, and while I held off listening until a couple of days before the ‘street date’ I had this review nearly completed within a couple of days. So why wait? I wanted to play this more, play other stuff, come back a couple of times, and get an overall assessment apart from my first couple of listens. To a large extent, I needed to validate a statement I had floating around in my head. Here it is:

Bending Bridges will absolutely appear on my list of the ‘Top 10’ albums of 2012.
Sounds like a bold prediction this early in the year, but quite frankly ‘Bending Bridges’ is THAT good. In 2010 ‘Saturn Sings’ captured the imagination of jazz fans and critics such as myself who fell in love with the music that encompassed the tradition without being constrained; that looked to the future without discarding past knowledge. It was a strong album with solid compositions and excellent performances. And ‘Bending Bridges’ is better in every single way. I always say that I prefer not to get ‘review copies’ of music because I would rather support the artist – but I make an exception for pre-release copies. So naturally on the day of release I corrected this by buying ‘Bending Bridges’ on iTunes – and so should you.

Choice Track (and why): Deformed Weight Of Hands (No. 28) – I absolutely adore this song as it brings together all of the strengths of Mary Halvorson and her trio: swinging, rock-centric intensity, free rhythmic interplay, intimate communication, and an incredible level of musicianship and composition. I have mentioned how certain songs being to mind other recordings, and this is no exception. As I listen to this song I think of John Scofield’s early trios, Kind Crimson from the ‘Discipline’ era, John Abercrombie’s ‘Gateway’ trio, and even some 70’s era Mahavishnu Orchestra. Yet at the same time there is a bounce and swing that so many guitarists of the 70s and 80s eschewed in favor of more straight-ahead rock musings. Mary Halvorson incorporates swing, rock, bebop, free, fusion, and post-modern jazz … and she does it all fluidly and fluently – and most importantly musically.

You Might Love This If: You have an open mind and adventurous ear. Everything that has earned Halvorson accolades before remains, and has only improved: her compostions are stronger and tighter and she understands writing for quintet better than before; her musicianship and ability to genre-hop at will has improved and freed her to play whatever she feels at a given moment; and the interplay and communication amongst the musicians facilitates surprises and risks and a totally trusting environment for exploration and improvisation.

Where to Buy: iTunes Music Store – $9.99, or from the Amazon MP3 Store – $8.99.

Here is a video of her trio playing live:

Head to Mary Halvorson’s official site for more info on her many projects and when you can see her perform live!

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About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!