For many like myself, another Mary Halvorson album is always something to look forward to and I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough. Then all it takes is a single hearing to be entranced. Moreover, I never cease to be amazed how many new things I hear from the first hearing onwards. On Away With You, Halvorson’s recording with her octet, one of the ‘new’ things is the presence of the pedal steel guitar, but more than the addition of this unusual-sounding second guitar overall, this predominantly tender, almost cantabile approach makes for a truly refreshing, distinctive reading of Halvorson’s music on this unique and colouristically varied recording.
Not surprisingly Mary Halvorson is her usual, iconoclastic self. As such she presses your buttons whether you like it or not. But then Halvorson has always zigged when everyone else seemed to zag. Beyond the joy of listening to a wonderfully tuned instrument, the way Halvorson’s tone grows through her sustained notes is particularly lovely. Even during the most discordant stretches of the music she always places an emphasis on smooth, soft elegance, always exploring just how beautiful her guitar can sound, allowing the instrument to strut its soft, clear stuff no matter what register it is being played in. This is not a matter of technique but genuine skill and intuition. It takes intimate knowledge of a very difficult instrument to tame. But like a proverbial ringmaster in a big top, Mary Halvorson not only brings it to life, idiosyncrasies and all, but she has it doing her bidding with each pluck of the string.
The Octet is also in fine voice and just the vehicle for this music which the guitarist has started to number (one hopes this practice will endure). In the studio it would not have been possible to watch with fascination how a studious little girl, not only hidden behind her glasses, but also dwarfed by the rather large body of her guitar could conduct this group, but from the way the music unfurls, it would seem that she has given them full rein on her compositions. Her spare orchestral writing enables the intrepid individuals such as trumpeter Jonathan Findlayson, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik to launch their plangent instruments so that each player finds music and tone in extremis. Starring also is Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar, which is played hugely expressive rubato, often gaining greater musical expression by stretching certain beats, measures, or phrases and compacting others.
The group meets the challenges of the music with characteristic vigour and splendid style in the bewitching ‘Spirit Splitter’. The overture-like gestures of the latter choruses of ‘Away With You’ make for an agile ending to a precocious piece of music. The fierce intensity of ‘The Absolute Almost’ is carried through ‘Sword Barrel’ as well as ‘Old King Misfit’ although the latter piece is blessed by majestic close-harmony horns and the most rapturous of guitar solos. The group relishes the dark saturations of ‘Fog Bank’ finding something really still in the slow incantation for solo guitar near the heart of the piece. ‘Safety Orange’ and ‘Inky Ribbons’ bring hugely expressive performances from the magnificent bassist John Hébert and the extraordinary drummer Ches Smith. As if one couldn’t ask for more, the album also features brilliantly engineered sound from Nick Lloyd, who is probably in great demand by artists as we speak.
Track List: Spirit Splitter (no. 54); Away With You (no. 55); The Absolute Almost (no. 52); Sword Barrel (no. 58); Old King Misfit (no. 57); Fog Bank (no. 56); Safety Orange (no. 59); Inky Ribbons (no. 53).
Personnel: Mary Halvorson: guitar; Susan Alcorn: pedal steel guitar; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone; Ingrid Laubrock: tenor saxophone; Jacob Garchik: trombone; John Hébert: bass; Ches Smith: drums.