Thursday, September 19, 2013

CD Review: Mary Halvorson Septet- Illusionary Sea

Mary Halvorson Septet
Illusionary Sea
(Firehouse 12),

After recording one album with her trio (bassist John Hébert, drummer Ches Smith), guitarist Mary Halvorson expanded the group to a quintet by adding Jon Irabagon (saxophone) and Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) on the next two. The addition brought more contour and texture to her already thoughtful music, that blended a unique strain of progressive rock sounds with a vocabulary influenced by her studies and work with Anthony Braxton.

For her fourth album, Halvorson has blown out the group even further with the addition of Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone) and Jacob Garchik (trombone). It's hard to tell if the instrumentation abetted the creation of the music or the music gains new perspective through the instrumentation, but Illusionary Sea undoubtedly in the strongest release yet from the Halvorson unit so far.

One thing that gives the album such a wide sound can be attributed to the way the horns are panned between the speakers. Finlayson and Irabagon sit in the left channel, Halvorson is in the middle with Laubrock close to her, and Garchik to the right. They sometimes feel very orchestral, with various combinations of instruments playing lines that are answered or developed by other players. Some pieces have a lyrical ballad quality ("Red Sky Still Sea," "Fourth Dimensional Confession"), which are just as likely to sound written-through as they are to go into guitar solos with psychedelic sounds and a pedal drone.

Illusionary Sea is an album that can leave you feeling both satisfied and intrigued after the first listen or two, knowing that more nuances are going to reveal themselves with each return to it. Halvorson's playing has gotten more unique, leaping from chords to single line solos that bend and crinkle in little places ("Smiles of Great Men") with ease that reveal added skill in the use of her effects. When she kicks on the distortion and bends the pitch in the final moments of "Four Pages of Robots" the sounds are used as a strong reinforcement of the piece, perhaps alluding to what the title represents.

The album ends with a cover of guitarist Philip Catherine's "Nairam," which Robert Wyatt recorded as "Mary Anne" on his excellent Shleep album. Halvorson based her arrangement on that version, picking out the foundation on the guitar while the horns play a melody that is both tranquil and slightly off-kilter with a mix of sweet harmonies and gentle clashes. Lest anyone get other ideas about her intentions, she begins with an almost mischievous intro of tones that she scrambles and transforms into satellite noise with her effects pedals. It's a perfect way to end this unique ride.

Anyone new to Halvorson who doesn't know where to begin exploring her work as both a leader and supporting player should start with this album, which has all her best traits on display.

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