The Upshot: Impressive talent comes to bear on a set of songs that straddle the line between forbidding and accessible.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Guitarist Mary Halvorson has been quietly reimagining jazz guitar for fifteen-odd years now, with a distinctive playing style that is to the six-string what Henry Threadgill’s angular harmonics are to the saxophone. Her melodies rarely follow conventional paths, and she often circles around the arrangement like a jazz approximation of Afrobeat guitar lines. She’s been rightly celebrated as one of jazz’s most interesting and innovative voices, with a string of albums in various modes, from the improvisational trio dynamics of Thumbscrew and the avant-pop of duo People to her various trios/quartets/octets/etc. and ongoing work with John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Stephan Crump.
For her latest album Code Girl, Halvorson assembles a crack band, including her Thumbscrew bandmates Tomas Fujiwara and Michael Formanek, rising trumpet star Ambrose Akinmusire and singer Amirtha Kidambi, for a set of jazz tunes with vocals. Akinmusire is a strong melodic foil for Halvorson, as the young lion has never been averse to playing his lines in a manner similar this date’s boss, leading to some strange unison lines and fascinating counterpoint. Kidambi uses her soprano as an instrument as often as a means of communicating the words, sometimes sounding like she’s borrowing from opera via wordless singing and swooping scales. The rhythm section goes for subtlety over fireworks, taking positions as accompaniment more than drivers. As mastermind, Halvorson wields her bandmates’ skills with utmost sensitivity, clear in her vision but letting her sidepersons interpret her ideas in their own ways.
All of this talent comes to bear on a set of songs that straddle the line between forbidding and accessible. Halvorson isn’t afraid of a catchy tune, but she’d rather allude to it than play it straight, making the audience work for what they want. The sedate “Accurate Hit” is simple to absorb (despite Halvorson’s whammy bar accents that disorient any notions of easy listening), while “My Mind I Fight in Time” quickly rides off the rails, keeping the track in sight but veering off into the brush often. “Thunderhead,” “Drop the Needles” and “Possibility of Lightning” come off as mostly accessible, though each has its spiky bits. The epic “Storm Cloud” gathers multiple threads of dissonance and euphony, sometimes alternating them, sometimes pitting them against each other, often letting Kidambi’s croon-to-shriek theatrics determine when to build and when to burn. Indeed, Halvorson’s intentions become most clear on this and “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon,” the other longform cut here – in extended play the ensemble can develop Halvorson’s ideas without being rushed, creating primers in the way her musical mind works.
Halvorson has always been dedicated to pushing the envelope of her own artistry, let alone that of jazz itself. Code Girl is no exception, bending its inherent musicality to the will of its creator. But the goal is never disharmony for its own sake, and anyone willing to meet Halvorson’s challenge, especially over multiple spins, will be amply rewarded.
DOWNLOAD: “Storm Cloud,” “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon,” “Drop the Needle”