Mary Halvorson is a knotty player, a guitarist with an unadorned tone and an approach that could almost be called unmelodic. She specializes in jazz lines that lurch and twist and abrade the ear, finding freshness by avoiding the very musical familiarities that most listeners, well, enjoy.
Except that, in this avant-garde approach, Halvorson is finding fresh ways to sound great, to write catchy tunes, and to put a fire of urgency into hearing jazz in a new way.
Bending Bridges is the second beautiful and urgent recording from her quintet, with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist John Hébert and Ches Smith on drums. The band plays with precision and fire on a series of Halvorson tunes that entertain and tell stories. Every track here sounds like a journey: with repetitions but also fresh horizons, with sweeping vistas and moments of pure road momentum. Bending Bridges hasn’t the foggiest idea of how to bore you.
“Hemorrhaging Smiles (No. 25)” starts as a sunny theme over a syncopated set of accents, leading to a quick little guitar lick that is clean, precise, and irresistible. Hébert holds down the action while Irabagon solos with gutty urgency, leading eventually to a section featuring Finlayson’s trumpet and Halvorson’s guitar in impressionistic duet. It’s quite a further contrast as the ensemble returns with what seems almost like a fanfare. Yes, the theme returns too, but not without something decidedly different, including a cascading guitar line that glides over the horn part. But that’s not the end either. Halvorson then takes a brief solo that begins almost like a baroque exercise in care and then — jarringly — bends notes and, in a rush, cranks up both the volume and distortion to become an overdriven fury. Smith matches this, stroke for stroke and crash for crash, on drums.
A combination of precision and freedom also marks “Love in Eight Colors (No. 21)”. The theme is a highly consonant and lovely trumpet/saxophone melody that shifts into a series of sharp, wide-interval stabs by both the horns and the guitar. And then the band cuts out. Finlayson breaks the silence with a totally unaccompanied trumpet passage that eventually picks up craggy and scrambled guitar accompaniment and returns to the stabbing figure that ended the melody statement. Irabagon plays his solo over the full rhythm section, with his tone fraying more and more as Halvorson bends her chords behind his improvising.
Among the great things about the construction of this band is the way that Hébert’s woody bass tone contrasts with Halvorson’s unadorned guitar or her subtle forms of distortion. “That Old Sound (No. 27)” is for guitar trio only, but the sense of dynamic range is extreme. Hébert is natural and lovely in laying down the harmonies, and then the guitar continuously distorts and bends, with Halvorson laying in strange effects and supplementary tonal variations such that it almost seems as if the whole quintet must be hiding inside her Guild’s hollow body.
“Sea Cut Like Snow (No. 26)” is yet another adventure. After beginning in a moody minor mode, with repeated notes gaining power as the texture of the arrangement changes and with sparkling coordination between the guitar and bass, the song morphs into something faster. This new section develops a clear pulse atop those repeated notes, and a trumpet solo evolves. But when it’s the alto player’s turn, Smith starts swinging on his ride cymbal, and Hébert begins a fast walking pattern, turning the whole engagement into something more fleet of foot. Enter Halvorson, and she gets a different treatment — a drumless set of horn chords over which she plays clean but also keeps her dramatic note-bending up until a sudden conclusion. The minor theme never returns, and the music remains a considerable surprise from tip to tail.
Each of these nine tracks contains a similarly compelling trail of musical interest. There are rock-like moments of distorted power chords that slam at the ear (“Deformed Weight of Hands (No. 28)”, one minute in), crazy swarmings of free-jazz noise that devolves into a chirping duet between bass and a bridge plucked guitar (“Sinks When She Rounds the Bend (No. 22)” at six minutes), and resonant passages of Americana chording (the start of “Forgotten Men in Silver (No. 24)”).
If I could choose only one tune from a recent release to play for a jazz skeptic, it would be the intricate and astonishing “All the Clocks (No. 29)”, which uses a series of faster-then-slower picked guitar lines to push and pull time almost in the manner of a progressive rock song. Over this jittering waterfall patterning, the horns build another rush of patterns, some of which speed up and slow down and as well. It is a unique composition, and the improvisations are so keenly intelligent that they seem to match the spirit of the tune completely, particularly as Finlayson flutters and strikes true in his statement.
Halvorson, in this final tune on Bending Bridges, makes her very unconventional technique span the precise and the peculiar. “All the Clocks” could be a tune from Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch but it could also be the product of a “post-rock” experimental outfit like Tortoise. A tiny bit prog and a whole lot free, a decent part tuneful but a whole dollop adventurous, the Mary Halvorson Quintet is an ideal modern jazz ensemble.
Fans of the today’s beyond-category jazz should be lining up for this music, but so should indie-rock fans or guitarheads or noise-rockers or any other music fan who cares to hear the daring mix with the heady. This is another great record from an outstanding band. May they keep coming.