Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Mary Halvorson & Stephan Crump - aka Secret Keeper - Slay Pittsburgh

Funny how these things work. Sometimes top-notch, adventurous jazz types come to Pittsburgh and a baker's dozen of listeners show up. Then last night, a guitarist who is arguably one of the most innovative in her field (definitely the most unique voice) and a dynamic, prolific bassist  - whose regular gigs include a spot in the Vijay Iyer Trio - come to town, totally flying under the p.r. radar, and they pack a loft, essentially selling it out, at least a week in advance. It's a tad ironic that the duo goes by the name Secret Keeper. But I'm here to celebrate, not castigate.

I found out that Mary Halvorson (guitar) and Stephan Crump (bass)  - aka Secret Keeper - were coming here almost by accident, told by a friend/publicist a while ago. The evening after I interviewed Mary for a Pittsburgh City Paper article, I heard that it was sold out. Luckily, Mary ensured that I got in. Which is good because if I hadn't, I would have had a five-alarm meltdown. ("Standing in the rain/ with his head hung low/ couldn't get a ticket/ it was a sold-out show...")

The only reason I'm editorializing is because it would have been cool if the folks who attend things like the Sound Exchange weekly events at the Thunderbird Cafe had known about it, so audiences could cross-pollinate. Mary is coming back for a residency in June/July with the band Thumbscrew. Hopefully everyone can come in contact then. We can be a welcoming people, us Pittsburghers.

So, yeah, I suppose I was sort of geeking out at the show. I really like Mary's music with her own bands, and love Stephan's many projects. But getting to see Secret Keeper in person, just a few feet away from me, was awesome. Halvorson's big, hollow body Guild guitar has a distinct, crisp tone to begin with, but she has a signature sound, built on a skillful use of pitch-bending pedals, delay and the occasional stomp of the Rat distortion box. Crump plays his bass viscerally, hugging it, singing along with it, generally working up a sweat as he did last night. (It got pretty warm in the room as the set proceeded.)

Emerge, Secret Keeper's second album, isn't officially out yet, but the duo has been touring in support of it for the past week, and last night's set was predominantly drawn from that album's tracks. It was fascinating to watch Halvorson play long, extended melody lines that kept flowing. In the coda of "Bridge Loss Sequence, she switched to chords that almost sounded like Freddie Green's riffing in a Count Basie piece - although the context was way different, and this was only a passing moment. But it shows how much contour can be found in their work.

Crump often sounding like he was operating on a different rhythmic plain than his partner, but it was easy to see that they were moving together even if they were playing parallel melodies (or to extend that metaphor, maybe it was more perpendicular). He bowed some deep harmonics and some rich double (and possibly triple) stops. Then the climax to a piece like "Disproportionate Endings" both of them pulled out some outer space harmonics. "Mirrors," originally an improvisation on their Super 8 album, had Crump playing his bass's frame percussively before Halvorson looped a bunch of guitar effects that sounded like sped-up piano noodlings.

The audience seemed to stay with the duo through the whole set, sitting in quiet, rapt attention (from what little I could pick up in the second row) and showing their enthusiasm with applause. Here's hoping we'll all see each other again soon at another show.

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