Halvorson’s Amaryllis/Belladonna

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AMARYLLIS / HALVORSON: Night Shift. Anesthesia. Amaryllis. Side Effect.* Hoodwink.* 892 Teeth* / Mary Halvorson, gtr/arr; Adam O’Farrill, tpt; Jacob Garchik, tb; Patricia Brennan, vib; Nick Dunston, bs; Tomas Fujiwara, dm; *Mivos String Quartet

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WAP 2022BELLADONNA / HALVORSON: Nodding Yellow. Moonburn. Flying Song. Haunted Head. Belladonna / Halvorson, gtr/arr; Mivos Quartet: Olivia De Prato, Maya Bennardo, vln; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, vla; Tyler J. Borden, cel / Nonesuch 075597912708 / available as a 2-LP or 2-CD set as well as available for free streaming on Bandcamp and YouTube.

Of Jazzwise’s “Top 20” jazz albums of 2022, I found 17 of them to be pretty much in-one-ear-and-out-the-other recordings, but isn’t it funny that most of their picks are on one of only three labels, Blue Note, Nonesuch and ECM, which tells you who is advertising heavily in their magazine/website. If you pay to play, you get biased “pimping” of certain records.

Nonetheless, this double release caught my ear although (as usual) I urge prospective buyers to NOT waste their money on the (cough, cough) “vinyl” release. Trust me, folks: millions and millions of jazz and classical fans did not switch from LPs to CDs just because CDs were the “in” thing back in the 1980s. I myself held out until pretty close to 1990 before I switched over because the earliest CDs had only 16-bit sound which was thinner and less rich-sounding than what we heard on LPs, but once 24-bit releases came about, the sound difference between LPs and CDs completely disappeared, and although mishandled CDs can indeed become damaged, carefully cared-for silver discs will outlive your “vinyl” for decades without picking up crackle, pops, ticks and eventually skips. It’s just a fad, and in my view it’s pretty close to being played out. I predict that by 2030 the “vinyl” fad will be over.

But I also caution against buying the 2-CD set, even though Halvorson considers these to be two quite different jazz suites and each of the two has its own separate cover art, because if you buy them as downloads you can burn both albums on one CD. Both suites put together run less than 75 minutes.

As for the music, however, it is that unusual combination of low-key and fascinating. Even from the first track, Night Shift, one hears an unusual “stutter” beat that sounds as if it is in 3 ½ rather than a straight four, and even within each bar the rhythm is irregularly distributed. In addition, her combo on this set is strengthened by the presence of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and trombonist Jacob Garchik, two strong players who are very much “old school” jazz players: structurally interesting in their solos, but also hard-swinging. They don’t mess around. Garchik’s extended solo, in fact, tends to ignore the irregular meter and cut across bar lines with a wonderful linear style that pulls the music together rather than fragmenting still further. Patricia Brennan on vibes is more low-key but has her own way of playing a solo, using notes that are just a bit outside the central tonality yet still makes musical sense. I also loved the way the rhythm section plays together in an organic manner; none of this “every man (or woman) for himself” style so prevalent in modern groups.

Anesthesia opens completely out of tempo, like some of Charles Mingus’ pieces, and has a similar amorphic theme. Here, at least, the bass and drums do play independently of each other, a technique that Mingus also used in such pieces. The trumpet and trombone occasionally play together and at other times play at what sounds like a beat or a half-beat apart. Halvorson’s guitar rises up from the ensemble once the volume quiets down, her playing being more like gingerbread around the edges that a focused and structured solo. It’s a bit weird, but I like it! Brennan’s vibes then tinkle a bit around Halvorson’s guitar, as does Garchik’s trombone, while O’Farrill plays odd, squealing figures in the background—interestingly, recorded at a distance from the rest of the band, which puts some “space” around the piece, as if it existed in two discrete sections of the room. Interestingly, the music does eventually coalesce about a minute or so before the very end.

Amaryllis, also in an irregular meter, opens with a fast bass solo, followed by guitar and vibes as the drums fall in behind them. Trumpet and trombone play a long-lined theme over this busy undercurrent, sometimes picking up in tempo but, again, often playing against the st rhythm. Then, suddenly, everyone comes together just in time to launch an O’Farrill trumpet solo. Halvorson clearly thinks outside the box in creating her music; although it has features that reminded me here and there of other jazz composers, she is clearly working in a world of her own. Her own playing on this track is surprisingly minimal, at times bending the strings to suggest a Hawaiian guitar. This piece also ends very abruptly. Weird stuff!

On Side Effect, Halvorson uses the Mivos String Quartet, giving one a preview of what is to come in all of Belladonna. Here, they generally play staccato figures, although there are spot solos by cello and viola. Then the rest of the band comes in to expand the sonic palette, again playing in an odd meter. The only thing that bothered me about this track is that it leaned towards a rock beat, which I abhor in jazz, but Halvorson clearly keeps the music’s line and the sound textures within the jazz sphere. The impressive thing is that Halvorson is a true composer and not just a “jazz tunesmith.”  The strings also play on Hoodwink, this time opening softly and bitonally, with little “squeals” from the two violins as the music opens with strange figures. Guitar and vibes come into the picture, playing melodic, tonal and relaxed music in what sounds like 9/8 time. The drums then enter playing a sort of quasi-military rhythm as the horns play their own figures up above; then the music coalesces into its own quite unusual theme. O’Farrill’s trumpet solo sounds more like another theme than like an improvisation on the earlier one. There’s a subtle and unexpected key change in his last two bars, leading into a solo by the leader on guitar. As in her composing style, Halvorson has a guitar style entirely her own; it sounds as if it combines elements of jazz, folk music and the Chicago blues style of Elmore James. The ride-out has two bars which, curiously, sound like Strayhorn’s Take the “A” Train.

This set closes with 892 Teeth, another strange piece and one that more closely resembles contemporary classical music than jazz in its opening theme (as did some of the unusual pieces that Artie Shaw’s orchestra-with-strings played in the early 1940s). Later on in this piece, there is an extremely odd figure played by the strings (I think with microphone distortion) which creates a very odd effect. Vibes with sustained trumpet and trombone notes rides it out.

Halvorson John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Mary Halvorson (photo courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

We then move on to Belladonna. Halvorson has described these two suites as “modular and interlocking,” On Belladonna, however, the music is much more through-composed, using only her guitar with the string quartet. Her model seems to be a combination of the string writing that Eddie Sauter did for Stan Getz on his famous Focus album: clear textures and somewhat simple rhythms, avoiding the much denser string writing of Ornette Coleman and Mingus. But clarity has its own reward, particularly when the music is as well-conceived as this. It was much more difficult for me to guess who some of Halvorson’s influences were in her composition style, although at one point in the opening track, Nodding Yellow, I was reminded of Marius Constant. Despite the relative simplicity of the string writing, all of these pieces are fare more interesting and more cohesive musically than most of what the Kronos Quartet played in the 1970s and ‘80s. (Sorry, I never did like them. For me, the Turtle Island String Quartet was the game-changer in the field of jazz string quartet writing and performance.) 

Being a suite, each of the five pieces here contrast with those before and after them. Moonburn is the simplest in structure, and for the most part sticks to one chord although Halvorson’s guitar plays passages with chord changes in it over the steady four-note drones of the strings. At times, Halvorson bends her strings in creating a semi-bluesy feel around the semi-classical structure of this piece. Flying Song is a waltz—really, a relatively simple 3/4 time piece—and although I felt that Halvorson could have done something a bit more complex and interesting with it, it works well, particularly since she allows herself much more solo space here than in most of the other tracks on this combined album. She does vary the beat, and the theme, a bit in the middle, but unlike her pieces in Amaryllis, I felt that the music in Belladonna was intended much more as ambient, creating a mood and an atmosphere rather than pushing the envelope in terms of composition. This, I felt, was even more evident in Haunted Head, where she uses a simple, repeated figure in C major as the basis for an overlay of string chords, some of them using out-of-tonality notes, over her simple guitar figures. About three minutes in, there’s a sudden key change to add interest, but by and large I was less impressed by this piece. (My regular readers know that I am not a fan of simplistic music or “ambient” jazz.) As the piece continues, however, Halvorson overlays some more rhythmically complex string figures which add interest. A bit past the halfway mark, she plays an interesting guitar solo, and this does indeed move in and out of neighboring tonalities in addition to using an intriguing “skipping” rhythm. Later on in her solo, she adds some capo slides as the music suddenly shifts from 4/4 to a sort of loping 6/8.The ending is quite abrupt.

In the final piece, Belladonna, Halvorson reverts to the kind of irregular and unusual meters she used so often and effectively in Amaryllis. This piece, in particular, came closest to my ears to the string writing that Eddie Sauter, who never received a “genius” award although he was one, used in Focus. Here, too, Halvorson splits the string quartet, playing two strings against two, and I’m not so sure that her guitar breaks are always improvised, as they sound very much like integral passages in the composition. She then continues split quartet writing which, although not technically challenging, is very tricky to line up in performance. I was, however, much less happy with the hard-rick-influenced noises at the end of this track.

My verdict is that Halvorson is an extremely unusual and highly individual composer who uses jazz as a vehicle for writing rather than her writing as a vehicle for jazz, but that’s fine with me. Just mentally add her to my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, as one of the more imaginative “jazzical” composers of our time.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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