It was only about halfway into the Mary Halvorson Quintet’s December 19th set at Albuquerque’s Outpost Performance Space, on a new tune provisionally titled “No. 51,” that the guitarist herself took an extended solo break. Her spidery lines, liberally sprinkled with altered tones and creatively dancing around the meter, revealed a musician more than up to the task of jazz improvisation. However, any effort to judge Halvorson on solo merits alone is completely missing the point.
Mary with her vintage United Code franken-guitar in 2011; she played the unique instrument through a Twin Reverb at the Outpost gig. Photo by Andy Newcombe.
Mary Halvorson has garnered critical acclaim as one of the 21st century’s most talented avant garde composers; it’s best to understand her as the nerve center of a hydra-headed post-modern jazz monster. Each member of the quintet — Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Jon Irabagon (alto sax), John Hébert (bass), and Ches Smith (drums) — is tethered to the intricately crafted rhythmic and harmonic body of her compositions. From time to time, each musician is let loose to interpret the tune, while Mary provides chordal and melodic snippets to subtly guide and motivate the direction of their lines. Other times, she and the band drop out entirely, letting the soloist navigate by musical dead reckoning. In any case, the improvised sounds of each band member are as much a reflection of Halvorson’s creative force as they are expressions of the individual. It’s a fascinating approach to improvisation best appreciated in a live setting.
Needless to say, the Outpost set did not disappoint. The Quintet started with several “old” tunes, including “Sinks When She Rounds the Bend” and “Love in Eight Colors” from 2012’s Bending Bridges, before launching into mostly new material. Halvorson’s steady compositional output reflects a vision that is consistently forward-looking; you don’t attend one of her shows to hear standards reinterpreted. That’s not to suggest the music completely departs from jazz past. Juxtaposed amid fuzzed-out power chords and atonal squawks are subtly swinging passages, vaguely familiar melodic motifs, and polyphony that reaches straight back to the genre’s Dixieland roots.
It would be easy (albeit condescending) to caution that Halvorson’s music is “challenging” — that you really need a broader appreciation of jazz to understand where she’s coming from. I’m pretty sure that’s not her intent. Moreover, I would wager that rock/punk listeners whose tastes err toward a certain degree of harmonic anarchism — think Sonic Youth, Sleater Kinny, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Tom Waits, or latter day Wilco with Nels Cline — may have an easier time connecting with Mary Halvorson than many mainstream jazz fans. If you can maintain an open mind, and more importantly open ears, then a Mary Halvorson Quintet show is time well spent at the boundaries of musical convention.