Mary Halvorson is a purposeful and rich composer.
Guitarist Mary Halvorson has been active and recording on the New York creative music scene for about 15 years, piling up more than two dozen dates. Her latest, Code Girl, features both music and lyrics by Halvorson—14 songs for a quintet. The music is often brilliant and the band plays with a flow and balance that reflects a particularly strong period of writing and arranging by Halvorson. Much of this music is also odd or stilted, particularly in how it weds singing to the complexity and darting force of Halvorson’s thorny new jazz.
The singer is Amirtha Kidambi, who studied classical voice but has long been part of the creative/improvised music community, collaborating with Muhal Richard Abrams, Daniel Carter, Tyshawn Sorey, Darius Jones and many others. Her sound is highly mutable—she achieves classical precision and formality but can also find a smoky soul sound. She sounds wonderful and soulful, for example, on “Storm Cloud,” an imagistic poem set over an accompaniment that begins with arpeggiated guitar and then adds bowed bass from Michael Formanek and eventually Tomas Fujiwara’s grooving drums. A trumpet line by Ambrose Akinmusire plays both in unison and in harmony with the vocal. Kidambi begins in her lower register, bending notes dramatically, before she moves carefully up an octave. The build is slow, delicious and dramatic. Halvorson’s solo is measured—a careful melodic exploration that makes smart and moving use of the delay-pedal effect that lets her bend or detune notes in a unique, loopy way. Akinmusire solos too, and he is quickly joined by the voice again, matched with an eerie closeness.
On that performance, the band seems ingeniously conceived and balanced. There are other tunes where the band—utterly precise and in sync—is playing a composition that can only be called difficult. “Possibility of Lightning” has a light-march rhythm, and the trumpet and guitar outline a melody that is stilted but clever. When Kidambi joins with the words, however, it all falls apart. To sing the complex tune well, she uses classically-toned precision, and Halvorson wrote it so that single syllables of the lyrics are broken up over many notes. What the trumpet and guitar make sound like a quirky melody simply sounds wrong, or forced, or unpleasant for the vocal. This was, undoubtedly, the effect Halvorson was trying to achieve, by the way. The tension in her music is often along the knife’s edge between design and dissonance. This split between more “natural sounding” music and a stilted oddness can be found within individual tunes as well.
There is much here, of course, that is supremely artful. Mary Halvorson is a purposeful and rich composer. “Thunderhead” is cool in actually having a swing groove for bass and drums that is then matched by a jumpy popcorn of a melody for trumpet and guitar that eventually turns into a devilish, difficult but playful counterpoint. It is a fun song on a record that can be knotty. Akinmusire takes a relaxed solo over the groove, eventually setting up Halvorson for a spritely if highly distorted solo during which she breaks up her tone before the melody returns. No vocal.
The longest track on Code Girl is “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon,” which contains one of Halvorson’s most adventurous solos, accompanied by Formanek and Fujiwara in a pliant, galloping mode. You may find yourself “rewinding” the solo itself several times to hear it immediately again, or maybe her solo and the way that Akinmusire’s trumpet emerges from that improvisation into a static-filled climax of rumble and mayhem. The band reaches a cacophony by the end that is cathartic. But the lugubrious “song” that begins the track? You may want to skip that part in future listens.
With all the lyrics being by Halvorson herself, you might be tempted to dismiss them as amateurishly avant-garde. But “Drop the Needle” fascinates: “is this the end I ask / I fly or could have flown / relief flowering the quiet / scarf of my last breath” and “people bury their wishes / I am none of them / a good bird in an earlier life / in a vicious cycle of birds.” The composition is intriguing too, with a 4/4 backbeat and a set of chords that make the song sound like an indie-rock creation more than jazz or new music. There remain odd incongruities between the angular melody and the style, and it’s hard to know why these lyrics begged for this treatment. It’s cool, but it’s a jumble.
When Code Girl works, though, boy does it work. “Off the Record” is an instrumental track that takes an odd-interval melody and fits it around a funky march groove, only then to relief it with a modern take of standard 4/4 swing. Everyone in the band plays like a dream, cliche-free. “The Beast” is seamless, incorporating the vocals into a plain whole, fulfilling the promise that this band seems to be making to us: that creative, improvised music can encompass the art song, the folk song, the indie-rock song and jazz. Mary Halvorson is reaching to achieve ambitious new sounds. If Code Girl is not a full success, it is certainly a leap of excitement.