The Thirteenth Assembly - "Direct" (Station Direct)
The Thirteenth Assembly brings together four of New York’s finest jazz and improvised music players and combines them in ways that raise some intriguing issues. It is beyond doubt that drummer Tomas Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson, cornettist Taylor Ho Bynum and violist Jessica Pavone are all technically superb instrumentalists but, as Bill Meyer concluded in his Dusted review of the quartet’s debut (un)sentimental (Important, 2009), “just because you can play anything doesn’t mean that you should.” That quote also applies to the quartet’s follow-up, Station Direct.
Away from the Assembly, its members have history together, one of the essential ingredients that help build empathy between players in an improvising group. Halvorson and Pavone are a duo, as are Fujiwara and Ho Bynum; the latter’s trio includes Fujiwara and Halvorson, while everyone but Fujiwara has played frequently together under the leadership of Anthony Braxton. Station Direct contains plenty of inspired improvised passages that testify to the effects of such collaborations.
But this album isn’t about improvisation — each of these seven tracks is composed, with credits being shared between the members. As composers, the four are generous to their group-mates; each rarely takes the lead on his or her own songs. So, the album opens with the haunting strains of Halvorson’s “Nosedive,” its main theme played on viola before cornet and drums join in, with the composer’s guitar contributing chords in a more supporting role. Next up, Pavone’s dramatic “Coming Up” opens with all four playing its theme before Fujiwara fires off an impressive drum solo that leads into an even better cornet solo. After an interlude of chamber viola plus drums, the piece closes with a flowing guitar solo that sounds improvised, not written.
As on (un)sentimental, these aren’t your standard jazz compositions, where a theme or head is provided and then used as the basis for soloing before a closing reprise. Instead, The Thirteenth Assembly’s songs tend to be more disjointed and episodic. Rather than combining different genres into a coherent music, the compositions feature jump cuts between contrasting styles. Ho Bynum’s 13-minute “Long Road” exemplifies this, not hanging together as a piece, being more a series of vignettes. The surprises feel too heavy-handed, and have very little to do with jazz being “the sound of surprise.” Given the talent on display, Station Direct leaves a lingering feeling that it could, and should, have been much better.