Modernists play trad jazz. That’s the basic concept, though modernist flourishes seem to grow across the album. Andrew Hill‘s music makes a decent reference point. This is all well played, though the approach is rather circumscribed in places.
Mary Halvorson is one of those musicians who refuses to stand still. Code Girl is yet another wide-ranging album — this time a double album. She is now drawing more heavily from pop music. The album’s production is not the sparse, “live” style that drove some of her excellent earlier albums like Saturn Sings and Meltframe. Instead there are effects and a rich, streamlined polish that recalls efforts to combine pop/rock recordings with jazz by Colin Stetson or on Matthew Shipp‘s New Orbit, and at times the wistful 1980s recordings of Sonny Sharrock (Guitar). To the extent that jazz fusion is an appropriate descriptor for some of this, Tim Berne‘s bands with guitarist Marc Ducret make a decent reference point. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire channels the calm, reflective style of Bill Dixon now and then. One striking feature of this particular band is the presence of Amirtha Kidambi on vocals. Her singing is reminiscent of Asha Puthli‘s on Ornette Coleman‘s Science Fiction but with more of the tone (and vibrato) of Wendy Lewis on The Bad Plus‘ For All I Care. If all this seems like too many comparisons, it is enough to respond that Halvorson’s band displays an awareness of lots of different music, drawing bits and pieces without becoming beholden to any of those influences. The resultant music of Code Girl is uniquely its own while still revealing a connection and affinity to what has come before, even if its historical reference points remain mostly off the beaten path.
In a way, Code Girl seems like a good first crack at integrating more pop elements into music that still retains influences from abstract jazz — the structure of many of these compositions still overwhelmingly show the influence of Anthony Braxton. But Kidambi doesn’t seem like quite the right vocalist, her vocal tone too prim and proper and her bel canto vibrato seeming less fitting than, say, sprechgesang. Halvorson herself sounds great, of course. She’s as good as ever switching on a dime from clean, virtuoso single note runs (like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, etc.) to distortion-laden improvised riffs (like Wata of Boris). In a way, American musicians of Halvorson’s generation are steeped in a digitized, computerized environment that permits a very casual acceptance of chopped up and reconfigured bits with leaps and juxtapositions accepted as a matter of course.
As good as this is, the double album as a whole can seem a bit scattered and uneven, though it would also be difficult to say that any particular songs are failures. While Code Girl can’t quite match Halvorson’s Away With You (arguably her best album to date), it is a welcome confirmation that she has more new ideas and plenty of adventurousness to spare. Here’s hoping that she can fine tune the approach of Code Girl in the future.
Mary Halvorson is one of the most talented guitarists of her generation. Her approach might be compared to that of Bill Frisell. Both guitarists have eclectic interests, a generous spirit towards collaborations, penchants for odd — almost contrarian — improvisations, and a willingness to employ distortion. However, especially in his later years Frisell has gravitated toward a pastoral Americana in his work that can come across as sedate and complacent. Halvorson, on the other hand, is much more willing to dabble in dissonance and incongruous leaps. That is to say, Halvorson sounds like Frisell turned up to eleven, with a more adventurous sense of composition.
Meltframe is a collection of solo guitar cover versions of generally lesser-known jazz tunes. For the most part, this is yet another tremendous album from Halvorson. She opens the set with a ragged, willfully jagged and loud take on Oliver Nelson‘s “Cascades.” Then there is “Cheshire Hotel” by the French guitarist Noël Akchoté, a sometimes collaborator with Halvorson, with a sort of pop derived melody and an emphasis on rhythmic reverb. Duke Ellington‘s “[(In My)] Solitude,” probably the most widely known composition to appear here, is played with a solemn yet sensitive emotional palette — another of the disc’s highlights. Carla Bley‘s “Ida Lupino” gets an acoustic treatment, recasting the tune’s tender, nostalgic sympathies for a charismatic female actor/director fading from view by newly emphasizing a kind of scrappiness. The album does drop off toward the end, with compositions that impress much less and performances that only occasionally spark interest. So the album is a tad uneven, but most of what is here is good-to-great.
Away With You is much less overtly “jazzy” than, say, Saturn Sings from six years prior. Halvorson seems much like the rightful heir to the kind of music her former teacher Anthony Braxton has been making for half a century. These recordings feature an octet with a horn section playing charts set against abstract solos. The charts aren’t exactly conventional, but they do provide an organized reference point that contrasts with other aspects of the proceedings. In Halvorson’s hands, it isn’t that she merely juxtaposes the strange and conventional, or that she fully integrates them either, but rather she plays those distinct approaches off each other in varying degrees. This lends a dynamism to what she does that seems the key to the album’s success. There is a totality evoked that contains disparate approaches and their synthesis, while extending equal respect to each and all of them. This is how Away With You achieves the much talked about but rarely delivered notion of music that is “inside” and “outside” at the same time.