Mary Halvorson Quintet - "Hemorrhaging Smiles (No. 25)" (Bending Bridges)
Let’s talk about tone first. The fabulous guitarist Mary Halvorson has never been one to shy away from her instrument’s idiomatic properties. Indeed, from her early exposure alongside teacher Anthony Braxton, her unvarnished clean tone distinguished her among improvising guitarists. There’s no hiding, no coasting in her approach to the instrument. And while she’s also not been afraid to step on a pedal or two when called for, or to engage modestly in what’s known as “extended techniques,” she always returns to possibilities and challenges of dealing with the basic ingredients of notes, lines and chords rather than building a language out of scratches, bowing, or preparations, for example. And as she began to write the music for Bending Bridges’s quintet — where the leader is joined by saxophonist Jon Irabagon, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith — Halvorson confesses to exploring “guitaristic” music even more fervently. It pays off splendidly.
The gorgeous, slightly elegiac “Sinks When She Comes Round the Bend” opens things up, and this makes for an interesting choice given the relatively boisterous feel of the balance of Bending Bridges. Key to this is the patient counterpoint all five members sustain, with real pleasure coming from close study of the horns. Finlayson has been kicking lots of ass lately, in case you didn’t know — listen to him introduce “Love in Eight Colors” or deal out the most patient and tasty of lines on “All the Clocks.” And Irabagon is such a versatile player, shifting from a ragged exasperation to a bright breath of heat in mid-phrase. Ches Smith and John Hebert make for a world-class engine room, supple, propulsive, and endlessly playful. There’s something about the tart, slightly anxious phrasing Halvorson explores on the opener here that recalls Brandon Ross (with an emphatically different tone, of course), but — in what becomes an indicator of an album of unpredictable jags and trapdoors — her solo here builds to a furious explosion of noise, brimming with dissonant chords and a wonderful spring-loaded thing that becomes an album leitmotif of sorts. Using what may be a very deft slide attack or some kind of preparation, Halvorson repeatedly creates an effect somewhere between a note hiccupping and Professor Frink from The Simpsons (“Hoyvin-Glavin!”).
Bending Bridges is filled with this kind of spry instrumentalism, fun-loving and deadly intense in equal measure. I love the stumble-bum feel of “Hemorrhaging Smiles,” moving from jittery stutter lines to a sunny tropical progression and back. Equally infectious are the long, elastic lines and abstracted funk on “The Periphery of Scandal.” Halvorson has this talent as a guitarist for piling notes into the craggiest spaces or stretching them out infinitely across denser passages. She’s also got an ace instinct for contrast as a composer, something you hear not just in her combination of tempi or texture (“Deformed Weight of Hands,” for example, moves between a Lounge Lizards-like slinky noir and atmospheric drift). You also hear it in her deft staging of duos along with solos, as with the clattery passages that follow the tight harmony of “Forgotten Men in Silver” or the squiggly mid-tempo swing passages on “Sea Cut Like Snow.” But it’s when the full quintet is in motion that things are most exuberant of all, with perhaps a highpoint between the twisting ostinato on “All the Clocks,” recalling one of those funked-up Tim Berne or Ken Vandermark pieces. Halvorson has been in the zone over the past couple years, but it’s hard not to hear Bending Bridges as a highpoint.