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Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 11, 2019: Tantalizing, Changing Modes

For this blog, night one of this weekend’s Winter Jazzfest marathon, as it’s now called, began with Big Heart Machine at the Sheen Center. Multi-reedman Brian Krock’s careening big band reflected the zeitgeist in more and more large ensembles these days – Burnt Sugar’s unhinged if loosely tethered performance at Lincoln Center Thursday night was much the same. Miho Hazama’s conduction in front of this group followed in what has become a hallowed tradition pioneered by the late Butch Morris, directing dynamic shifts and subgroups and possibly conversations, especially when she sensed that somebody in the band had latched onto something worth savoring.

In the first half hour or so of the band’s set, those included long, sideswiping spots from trombone, trumpet and Olli Hirvonen’s fearlessly noisy guitar. Vibraphonist Yuhan Su launched many pivotal moments with characteristic vigor and grace. Otherwise, methodically blustery upward swells contrasted with tightly circular motives that would have been as much at home in indie classical music, if not for the relentless groove. It would have been fun to have been able to stick around for the whole set.

Winter Jazzfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention, from which they have parted for the most part (there was a mini-marathon with a bunch of big names for the talent buyers last weekend). Crowds on the central Bleecker Street strip last night seemed smaller than in years past, although that might been a function of all the stoner fratboy faux-jazz being exiled to the outskirts of Chinatown, and the craziest improvisers being pushed to the edge of SoHo. And a lot of people come out for that crazy improvisational stuff. It also seems that a lot of fratboys get their parents to buy them weekend passes (cost – over a hundred bucks now) for the fusion fodder.

At Zinc Bar a little further west, it was a treat to see trumpeter Ingrid Jensen playing at an early hour, in front of a quintet including the similarly luminous, glisteningly focused Carmen Staaf on piano. It was the best pairing of the night. Jensen has rightfully earned a reputation as a pyrotechnic player, but her own material is more lowlit, resonant and often haunting, with profound roots in the blues. Her technique is daunting to the point that the question arose as to whether, at one point, she was playing with a mute or with a pedal (the club was crowded – it was hard to see the stage). No matter: her precision is unsurpassed. As was her poignancy in a circling and then enveloping duet with Staaf, and a blissful, allusively Middle Eastern modal piece, as well as a final salute with what sounded like a Wadada Leo Smith deep-blues coda.

At the Poisson Rouge, pianist Shai Maestro teamed up for a similarly rapturous, chromatically edgy set with his trio, bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Maestro represents the best of the current vanguard of Israeli pianists, with as much of a gift for melodic richness as Middle Eastern intensity. It’s rare to see a piano-led trio where the rhythm section, per se, are so integral to the music. Barely a half hour earlier, Jensen’s guitarist had launched into a subtly slashing, feathery passage of tremolo-picking while the trumpeter went into vintage Herbie Hancock-ish blues. Roeder did much the same with his fleet volleys of chords, way up the scale, while Maestro built levantine majesty with his cascades. Yet there was no way the two acts possibly could have heard each other do that…unless maybe they share a rehearsal space.

With Rachmaninovian plaintiveness, Wynton Kelly wee-hours bluesiness and finally some enigmatically enveloping, hypnotic, reflective pools of sound common to other pianists who have recorded for ECM (Maestro’s debut album as a leader is on that label), the trio held the crowd rapt. And all that, despite all sorts of nagging sonic issues with the stage monitors. It’s not often at the Poisson Rouge that you can hear a pin drop.

Back at the Sheen Center, a tantalizing half hour or so of Mary Halvorson and her quintet reprising her brilliantly sardonic Code Girl album validated any critics’ poll that might want to put her on a pedestal. What a treat it was to watch her shift through one wintry, windswept series of wide-angle chords after another. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill served as the light in the window, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each kicking in a series of waves, singer Amirtha Kidambi channeling sarcasm and wounded righteousness along with some unexpectedly simmering scatting.

A couple of doors down at the currently reopened Subculture, pianist Aaron Parks packed the house with his Little Big quartet, featuring Greg Tuohey on guitar, Jesse Murphy on bass and Tommy Crane on drums. Hearing Tuohey bend the wammy bar on his Strat for a lurid, Lynchian tremolo effect on the night’s third number made sense, considering the darkly cinematic tangent Parks had been taking. The first half of the set was a mashup of peak-era 70s Pink Floyd, late 60s Santana and P-Funk that grew more devious and metrically challenging as the night wore on. A slow, distantly ominous, methodically swaying border-rock theme – Lee Hazlewood via the Raybeats, maybe? – was a highlight. From there they edged toward Santana as Weather Report might have covered him, complete with all sorts of wry Bernie Worrell-ish synth textures.

And that’s where the night ended, as far as this blog is concerned. The lure of Miles Okazaki’s solo guitar reinventions of Thelonious Monk, or psychedelic Cameroonian guitarist Blick Bassy’s reinventions of Skip James were no match for the prospect of a couple of leisurely drinks and some natural tetracycline to knock out the nasty bug that almost derailed this report. More after tonight’s big blowout – if you’re going, see you at six on the LES at that hastily thrown up new “luxury” hotel at 215 Chrystie for clarinetist Evan Christopher’s hot 20s jazz quartet.

Jazz Guitar Mastermind Mary Halvorson Embraces Lush, Uneasily Rapturous Improvisational Art-Rock

Mary Halvorson may be known as one of the world’s most brilliantly individualistic jazz guitarists, but some of her work skirts the edges where experimental rock and postrock spill over into jazz. She’s also a rare example of a world-class fret-burner who’s also an excellent singer. And she’s also an intriguing lyricist. For whatever reason, the words to the genre-defying songs on her new album Code Girl – streaming at Bandcamp – aren’t imbued with as much of the sardonic humor and stiletto wit that runs through her instrumental work. Amirtha Kidambi sings them with dynamics, drama and passion. The album title is ironic in the genuine sense of the word: it has absolutely nothing to do with tech worship. March tempos are everywhere here: a political reference, maybe? Halvorson and her quartet are playing the album release show tomorrow night, April 3 with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the Jazz Standard; cover is $25.

As usual, Halvorson’s compositions here go far beyond stereotypical verse/chorus/bridge architecture. The intro to the opening track, My Mind I Find in Time sounds like Bill Frisell playing calypso; then Halvorson shifts to a steady, pulsing drive with hints of Vegas noir. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s cymbals ice the backdrop, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire contributes wary resonance and then grit. Kidambi’s soul-infused mantra, “Reconstruction is required in time” has unexpected drama. Bassist Michael Formanek’s final flourishes close it deviously.

Fluttery arioso vocals contrast with the dark lyrical undercurrent of Possibility of Lightning, which morphs into a growling march capped off by some mean tremolo-picking, spins through a vortex of improvisation with Akinmusire anchoring the bandleader’s savagery, then the two themes merge.

The epic Storm Cloud begins as a spare, ominously tremoloing Lynchian set piece, then the whole band march it into moody pastoral terrain. Halvorson hits her pedal for Dave Fiuczynski microtonal warp and Akinmusire wafts as Fujiwara pushes the anthem’s methodical metric shifts:

The clearing of the storm
Finds extra ordinary lives
Pulsing behind the blood

Halvorson and Akinmusire work coy counterpoint over a steady backbeat in Pretty Mountain. The bandleader’s steady, twisted folk arpeggios hold the center; scatting vocals signal an implosion before this wistful travel reminiscence’s punchline kicks in.

Moving between staggered jangle and another march groove, Off the Record has unexpectedly tropical flavor.Formanek artfully hands off the broodingly terse melody to Halvorson as In the Second Before gets underway,Akinmusire and Fujiwara shifting gears from droll to stern. Halvorson builds a roaring crescendo from there, part doom metal, part frantic squall: it’s the album’s high point.

The bandleader has a lot of fun toying with the Orbison noir ballad melody of Accurate Hit, a twistedly spare nocturne for guitar and vocals. Her tantalizing latin noir allusions fuel The Beast, the album’s most picturesque song: is this a seduction or a murder in progress? That song foreshadows the album’s haunting centerpiece, The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon, shifting between atmospheric dark, bossa-tinged folk and a spare sway. Then the group give it a long, thorough, rather wry wringing-out:

Why
In the water
Does laughing make you sink

Rustling counterpoint over yet another march beat give way to a pensive Akinmusire solo and desolate, reverbtoned tremolo-picking from Halvorson in Thunderhead, the closest thing to Frisell she’s ever written.

Halvorson’s muted pulses and enigmatically lingering lines contrast with Kidambi’s majestic delivery and Akinmusire’s uneasy airiness in the simply titled And; the unexpected turn toward New Orleans and then Indian drollery is irresistibly fun. Unsettled yet steady, Deepest Similar is a bittersweet love song, guardedly weighing hope for the future while letting go of the past: perhaps instructively, Kidambi’s angst-fueled vocals rise to their most tortured point here.

The album winds up with an amusing miniature, Armory Beams and then Drop the Needle, where Halvorson manages to orchestrate a shift from tongue-in-cheek and techy to slowly shuffling, moody resonance punctuated by Akinmusire’s pensively sailing lines and Formanek’s steady, bluesy melismas. Much as Halvorson has always been on the cutting edge, this is her most ambitious album to date – and there’s irony in that, considering how catchy most of these tunes are.