Friday, March 02, 2018

Show Preview: Mary Halvorson's Code Girl +

Left to right: Mary Halvorson, Amirtha Kidambi, Ambrose
Akinmusire, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara 

This is the cover of the CD

Mary Halvorson - Code Girl
Wednesday, March 7
Andy Warhol Museum, North Side
8 p.m. $20 ($15 for members and students)

There's lots of timely things to be talking about now, but this one rises to the top of the list. Along with Jason Moran's show tomorrow (with a set by the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble later at a different venue*) this particular show is one people should make serious plans to see. It marks the return to Pittsburgh by guitarist Mary Halvorson with yet another project. Also, the album Code Girl was released today and, for once, Pittsburgh happens to be the first stop on their tour.

The core of the Code Girl quintet is basically the collaborative Thumbscrew trio: guitarist Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. If there was ever a familiarity to that group, it evaporates thanks to the two additional members of the band, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and vocalist Amirtha Kidanbi. Halvorson composed both music and lyrics for the album. No stranger to lyrics she's previously written and sung with People (a mangled jazz-punk project with drummer Kevin Shea) and in duets with violist Jessica Pavone.

The lyrics read like fragmented beat poetry, and following along is recommended (at least at home) because Kidambi often sucks on and savors vowel sounds, often making any underlying theme even more obtuse. Sometimes her vocalizing sounds like a darker version of Robert Wyatt's style, while at other times her melodic path recalls some of the more operatic moments on Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill. And much like the latter album, so much is happening in the songs that any abrasive qualities are overlooked and placed to side for further investigation later.

That puts the attention on Halvorson and Akinmusire. The guitarist takes her signature clean-but-warped sound in a number of different directions. "Accurate Hit" strips the group down to just guitar and vocals. Halvorson bangs out a pattern that would sound like anthemic rock in the hands of the average joe. But her tone-bending pedal twists the standard sound at random moments, motivating Kidambi to respond in kind. By the final verse, she's wailing much like her accomplice's instrument. "Off the Record" begins in a tranquil mood, briefly shifting into a straight chord pattern than almost sounds like Count Basie's Freddie Green, finally featuring a solo where the delay pedal grabs the notes and bends them after they have left the guitar. It's a strange way in which Halvorson sounds like she's manipulating real time.

Akinmusire sounds quite at home in this melange of improvisation and arty composition. He and Formanek engage in a great duet to open "In the Second Before," with the trumpeter emitting some low smears and growls. His puckish tone is a driving force in "And" as well. There are other moments too when he and Kidambi seem to be inspiring and driving each other's work.

Usually Pittsburgh doesn't get a band like this so early into their formation. The young age of Code Girl (the band) isn't apparent by listening to the music, which is another reason to take advantage of an opportunity to see them in person. Hard to say when they might come back, especially considering how many other projects all of them have going on.

*For information on Jason Moran and Bandwagon's show on Saturday, here's a preview I wrote for City Paper. Also, Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble plays tomorrow night as well at Cattivo, 146 44th Street, Lawrenceville. Along with trumpeter Corey Wilkes, El'Zabar will have baritone saxophonist Alex Harding. I saw him play with David Murray's Big Band and he practically stole the show. Things start at 10 pm, following the Moran show. $20 at the door.

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