The Mary Halvorson Octet at the Vanguard: This Month’s Can’t-Miss New York Jazz Show
Mary Halvorson’s first set of a weeklong stand with her octet last night at the Vanguard danced and pulsed with outside-the-box ideas and some of her signature, edgy humor. Yet this was far more of a dark, troubled, often mesmerizing performance: music to get lost in from one of the three best jazz guitarists in the world at the top of her game. She and the band will be at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 PM tonight, July 19 through the 23rd; cover is $30.
Halvorson’s not-so-secret weapon in this latest edition of the band is pedal steel player Susan Alcorn. Predictably, she adds pastoral color, notably with the lonesome whistle-stop riffs in the night’s opening couple of numbers. But Halvorson also employs the steel to beef up the harmonies, an analogue for high reeds or brass to make the unit sound much larger than it is. Credit Great Plains gothic songwriter Rose Thomas Bannister for bringing the two together: they first performed in Bannister’s Fort Greene living room.
And while she and Alcorn shadowed each other and blended what became eerie, Messsiaenic tonalities, most audibly with the astringent close harmonies of the opening number, this isn’t a vehicle for Halvorson’s fret-burning…or so it seems. This is about compositions…and quasi-controlled chaos. It’s hard to imagine a less trad band playing this hallowed space.
Although the night’s most chilling and memorable number was a world premiere, its brooding Gil Evans/Miles Davis lustre following a distantly furtive path upward and outward, buoyed by the four-horn frontline of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, alto sax player Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik. The premiere right after that had more of the bubbly, jagged syncopation of the earlier part of the set, but with a restless late 50s Mingus bustle.
Old West ghost-town motives mingled with chattering, racewalking horns as Halvorson icedpicked her way through with a biting mix of digital delay and what sounded like an envelope pedal. Yet her most memorable spots were the slow, dying-quasar oscillations of an intro midway through the set, awash in reverb…and the allusively gritty clusters of the night’s closing number, Fog Bank, where she finally rose out of a mist left to linger by Alcorn and Garchik.
Drummer Ches Smith has so many different rolls, he should open a bakery: he and Halvorson have a long association, and she let him have fun with his usual tropes on hardware and repurposed cymbals. Pairings were smartly chosen and vivid, between Smith and Finlayson, or Smith and Laubrock, or bassist Chris Lightcap cantering and straining at the bit to fire up the horns. All this and more are possible throughout the week, a stand with potential historic significance. You snooze, you lose.