There was a point Monday night at the Poisson Rouge where guitarist Mary Halvorson landed on a disarmingly disconsolate four-chord phrase and then ran with it, methodically and gracefully, for longer than she did with any other idea throughout two sets onstage. She doesn’t typically go for the jugular until she’s built up to it, but this was different. Square in the middle of the fretboard, on the middle strings…on an vintage acoustic guitar miked through the PA. Meanwhile, flutist Robbie Lee wafted further and further behind her, realizing that it was the most gorgeous moment in a night that would be full of them.
By the end of the second set, a duet with Bill Frisell, Halvorson had gone back to her hollowbody Gibson electric – and played with a slide. Her brooding, flickering solo was a subtly potent payoff in the wake of a long series of gently keening incisions, Frisell providing a backdrop of warmly wistful pastoral riffs. She’s hardly known as a slide guitarist – this, and the rest of the evening was a message that she’s even more of a polygon than anybody knew. Does she have a Rickenbacker twelve-string stashed away behind the 19th century harp guitar she employed for much for the first set? After almost two hours of a fairly radical departure from her usual enigmatic intensity, that wouldn’t be a surprise.
Some acts make a whole tour out of “album release shows.” Halvorson packed two into one night, celebrating duo releases with both Lee and Frisell. After watching the first set, her album with multi-high-reedman Lee seems to be more composition-oriented than its liner notes indicate. And her set with Frisell, rather than being a high-voltage summit meeting between two of the three greatest jazz guitarists alive, was more introspective and casually conversational. But that made sense, considering that the two guitarists’ new album The Maid with the Flaxen Hair salutes Johnny Smith, one of the godfathers of pastoral jazz.
Goodnaturedly and judiciously, Frisell played second fiddle to his younger colleague, a clinic in spare, purposeful, lingering folk-inflected fills. There were a couple of points early on where he went to his trusty loop pedal while Halvorson went warp-crazy with her octave pedal for some collegial messiness before regrouping for pensive, wistful melody. Otherwise, he gave her a wide berth to indulge in a lot of sarcasm before she pulled back on the pedal and used it for bent-note plaintiveness rather than bizarre space lounge sonics. When they got to Walk, Don’t Run, Frisell seemed poised to leap into the surf, but Halvorson went for restraint instead. Frisell has done a lot of duo work lately and this was a typical example in peak subtlety.
Halvorson’s set with Lee was as allusively haunting as the one with Frisell – a connoisseur of noir, by the way – was warmly tuneful. Although Lee also ceded centerstage to her, his Middle Eastern chromatics and quavering microtones behind her steady, modal single-note lines were exquisitely chosen. Playing the harp guitar – an acoustic predecessor of double-necked Spinal Tap excess – she hammered on the open bass strings and picked out delicate melody against them, sitar-style. Mixing in tense, clenched-teeth tremolo-picking, she held the crowd rapt with her resolutely unresolved rainy-day chords as Lee built a gentle mist in her slipstream.
Frisell’s next appearance is on Sept 23 at the Pacific Jazz Cafe as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival.