Mary Halvorson Releases Her First Acoustic Album on Bleecker Street with Amazing Duo Sets Monday Night

The guitar summit of the year is this Monday night, Sept 17 at 8 at the Poisson Rouge, where Mary Halvorson is playing two duo sets, one with fellow six-string mastermind Bill Frisell and the other with multi-reedman Robbie Lee. Her set with the former promises to be as good as, say, B.B. King dueling with David Gilmour. This bill isn’t just two of this era’s greatest guitarists sharing the stage: it’s two of the greatest guitarists ever. The set with Lee is also auspicious since the two have a brand new album, Seed Triangular, streaming at New Amsterdam Records. $20 adv tix are still available as of today.

Halvorson has done plenty of strangely entrancing work over the years, but this is her weirdest album, not only because it’s her first acoustic record. Here she plays a late 19th century 18-string Knutsen harp guitar, a1930 Gibson L-2 model and a 1888 SS Stewart 6-string banjo. Lee, whose background spans from indie classical to chaotic free improvisation, plays antique flutes plus chalumeau (a medieval clarinet), soprillo saxophone, melodica and bells. Many of the album tracks are miniatures, carefully edited from a one-day, completely improvised studio session earlier this year. Some of it sounds like John Fahey on acid; other moments bring to mind the quasi-baroque minimalism of frequent Lee collaborator and lutenist Jozef van Wissem.

The duo open with an alternately precise and fluttery little intro, then make their way carefully but emphatically through Seven of Strong, Halvorson’s enigmatic strums shadowed by Lee’s wandering microtones. Like a Ripple Made By the Wind builds a memorably desolate minimalism. Then, in A Forest Viol, Lee runs his melodica through a weird distortion patch while Halvorson picks elegantly.

After the uneasy strum-and-flutter of Potamogeton, the two make their way through Fireproof-Brick Dust (Halvorson is unsurpassed at song titles) with a squirrelly, loopy, distantly flamenco-tinged elan. The Stuttering Note of Probably turns out to be an obstinate little mini-tone-poem for harp guitar, while Pondeteria contrasts Lee’s quavers with Halvorson’s tuneful steadfastness.

The album’s funniest cut is Rock Flowers, Lee’s over-the-top microtonal sax drama against Halvorson’s tongue-in-cheek banjo. She hints at a handful of pretty folk themes but never quite makes it out of the mist in Spring Up Here. Lee makes short work of his solo bubbles in Sing O-Gurgle-ee This Evening, the album’s shortest number.

The album’s best track is Shoots Have Shot, veering between stately quasi-Andalucian riffs, off-the-rails wreckage and wryly spacious minimalism. The Tawny Orange is similarly spare and allusive, while Early Willows edges toward wistful pastoral jazz. The album closes with the rather epic title track, which could be Gabor Szabo taking a stab at the neo-baroque. Much as this release doesn’t deliver the raw thrills of Halvorson’s electric work, there’s plenty of her signature humor here – and you have to give her credit for having the nerve to record on those tinny old acoustic axes.

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