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Reviews of Recent Media

Mary Halvorson
Nonesuch 075597912739

Mary Halvorson
Nonesuch 075597910377

The simultaneous release of Amaryllis and Belladonna heralds Mary Halvorson’s major label debut on Nonesuch Records. Halvorson has been praised as the most original and innovative guitarist of her generation since the 2008 release of Dragon’s Head, her first recording as a bandleader for the independent Firehouse 12 imprint. Since then, Halvorson has been incrementally increasing the size of her ensembles and the scope of her writing. On subsequent Firehouse 12 releases, she expanded her trio to a quintet, then a septet, and eventually an octet. Amaryllis features a sextet augmented by a string quartet, making it Halvorson’s largest ensemble to date. Belladonna is equally notable in that it premieres her first pieces written for string quartet.

Halvorson began composing new music in 2020 during pandemic lockdown, taking advantage of quarantine to study arranging and orchestration with violist Jessica Pavone. Belladonna was subsequently composed as a five-part suite for The Mivos Quartet (Olivia De Prato, violin; Maya Bennardo, violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; Tyler J. Borden, cello). The string quartet parts are through-composed but augmented by Halvorson’s spontaneous guitar improvisations. After finishing the writing for Belladonna, Halvorson added string quartet parts to new sextet pieces, making the music modular and interchangeable between the two projects. Amaryllis comprises a six-song suite featuring a new band, with Halvorson, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, trombonist Jacob Garchik, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara joined on half the selections by The Mivos Quartet.

Taking a minimum of brief but mesmerizing solos, Halvorson assumes the role of bandleader on Amaryllis, allowing her sidemen to extrapolate at length upon her unorthodox but accessible themes. Underpinned by memorable melodies and rich contrapuntal charts, the album’s suite espouses a unified sound world, bolstered by the adventurous interpretations of her sidemen. Halvorson’s intricate arrangements subtly guide each soloist; Garchik’s unruly garrulousness materializes on the funky opener “Night Shift” and Dunston’s throttling runs introduce the bracing title track with irrepressible aplomb. O’Farrill’s soaring cadences similarly uplift the latter, while Brennan’s opulent variations provide “892 Teeth” with lyrical respite – until the leader’s hallucinatory coda alters the mood. Dunston and Fujiwara instill stylistic continuity to an endless variety of syncopated rhythmic strategies, from the driving backbeat of “Side Effect” to the elastic momentum of “Hoodwink.”

For her first string quartet compositions, Halvorson pens tight-knit ensemble charts that avoid predictability. Their oblique harmonies and sudden changes in color, density, and rhythm invoke an array of modernist masters; the rhythmic veracity of Shostakovich and percussive pizzicato of Bartok are obvious antecedents, but so is the post-modern melodicism of label mate Caroline Shaw. Although Halvorson’s plangent writing is a highpoint of Belladonna, the album also spotlights her improvisational prowess – even more so than Amaryllis. Typically favoring bold textural dynamics, in this austere setting Halvorson largely eschews overdrive and distortion, concentrating on her most notable innovation – the imaginative use of a variable speed delay unit to control pitch and tone. Summoning a kaleidoscopic mosaic of sound, her spidery fretwork fluctuates between effervescent pointillism and crystalline cascades, saving a burst of coruscating frenzy for the title track’s dramatic finale.

Considering the exceptional music Halvorson has made over the last decade and a half, these two interrelated albums demonstrate her remarkable growth as a composer. Admiration of her singular fretwork has been well-deserved, although recent releases have documented the increasing sophistication of her ensemble writing, revealing a multi-faceted artist whose compositions are as impressive as her improvising. She embraces a more lyrical approach on these related suites, the atmospheric blend of lush string textures with brass and electric guitar conferring a more colorful tonal spectrum than any of her prior efforts. Though less angular than her early work, these expansive compositions still convey her idiosyncratic tendencies, revealing a singular sensibility characterized by mercurial melodies, abstruse harmonies, and odd-metered rhythms. Embracing a wide range of influences, Amaryllis and Belladonna represent a major step forward for one of today’s most creative artists.
–Troy Collins


Heroes Are Gang Leaders
577 Records 5887

This 12-piece combo, founded in 2014 by Thomas Sayers Ellis and the incredible composer/saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, is a top-tier multimedia organic improv unit. Founded in 2014, after Ellis and Lewis shared a bill with Amiri Baraka, HAGL is rooted in the idea that the spirit animating Baraka’s work can serve as the fulcrum for no mere tribute project but a genuine synthesis of black music and black literature. Ellis’ own poetry, as well as that of bandmates Randall Horton and Bonita Lee Penn, sits alongside vintage Baraka, in all its iconoclastic wonder and beauty. They’ve won major literary awards and played on stages as illustrious as the Kennedy Center, and make no mistake: they deserve all that acclaim and prestige. But this band is earthy and all about their roots. (Joining Lewis are bassist Luke Steward, violist/vocalist Melanie Dyer, vocalist Nettie Chickering, pianist/vocalist Jenna Camille, alto saxophonist/keyboardist Devin Brahja Waldman, trumpeter Heru Shabaka-ra, guitarist Brandon Moses, and drummer Warren “Trae” Crudup III – whew!) LeAutoRoiOgraphy documents an exuberant Paris concert. The opening suite “Amina” contains a Lewis composition, a scene from Baraka’s famed “The Dutchman,” and a series of other Baraka writings, all blended with vocal exhortations, horn fanfares, elegiac strings, and more. They dip organically in and out of grooves, poets enter and exit. It’s the shifting lyrics and vocal styles that cue things up, and they do so with great success. “Damn, was it something I said?” “Nation time!” “Forensic report!” Free jazz, deep funk, ritual sound, an entire distillation of what the AACM calls Great Black Music. Tonally, the literature chosen is as varied and exuberant as the music. Consider “The Shrimpy Grits,” which opens with a hilarious story by Ellis about a late-night dinner with Baraka. Camille and Lewis coil around in the air, moving between ruminations about ghosts cooking, or intense delivery of lines like “Y’all Albany negroes should grow y’all own grown” or “What it is, what it ain’t.” And of course, pitched almost at a scream: Near screaming “Somebody said you can put peanut butter in it and make deodorant. DON’T EAT THE SHRIMPY GRITS!!!” The title track opens somewhat plaintively, making its way toward a snaking groove, exploring Baraka’s youth on Newark Hill, underscored by the devastating realism of the line “If capitalism won’t kill me, racism will.” When the full ensemble comes swaying in to accompany the monologue (“I am the boogie man”), the combination of groove hypnotism, chants, and free polyphony reminds of no less an ensemble than Horace Tapscott’s Pan-Afrikan Arkestra. The piece ends with “Somebody gotta clean this shit up,” and that’s too goddamn true. One of HAGL’s oft-performed tunes is “Mista Sippy,” and it’s a beauty, with its hymnal opening. “Some people like to drink the whole river, but what if the drinkers could drag the whole river? ... Some people wanna watch the whole lynching.” Some of the date’s most soulful instrumental work follows, saxophone simply uncorked, and the piece concludes with the vocal dark, “Johnny Walker Redneck!” And finally, “Sad Dictator (I Wanna Make Freedom)” is a powerful, engaging riff on models of black manhood: “I want the World Saxophone Quartet!” Impassioned tenor, swaggering funk, all twelve musicians playing with united urgency. HAGL remains an absolute treasure, and this is the best I’ve heard from them.
–Jason Bivins


Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Quintet
For the Love of Fire and Water
RogueArt ROG-0119

The all-star group that pianist and composer Myra Melford assembled on For the Love of Fire and Water – guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, cellist Tomeka Reid, and percussionist Susie Ibarra – includes some of today’s most talented improvisers, composers, bandleaders, and collaborators, all of whom Melford has worked with before, but never together. The reception for the quintet’s first performance (a mix of composed sketches and collective improvisations) during Melford’s 2019 residency at The Stone, was so enthusiastic that she was asked to record and tour with the new ensemble. The ensuing pandemic delayed recording and touring plans, so Melford used the time as an opportunity to expand her sketches into a suite. The subsequent album was eventually made at Firehouse 12 Studios as the first installment of a multi-part project based on the work of Cy Twombly, whose art has long been an inspiration for Melford.

Twombly was more interested in the act of drawing than the end result; his preference for process over form parallels Melford’s own working methodology, who does not offer a literal interpretation of Twombly’s kinetic drawings, using them instead as reference points to guide improvisers. Melford visited Gaeta, the small coastal town in Italy where Twombly made Gaeta Set (for the Love of Fire & Water), the collection of oil-on-paper drawings from which the album takes its name and sensed he was conveying the different ways that the sun and sea interact. Rising to the surface, elemental details alternate between crescendos and calm, balancing cacophony with silence.

The ten continuous movements mirror ten of Twombly’s drawings, with each piece identified by Roman numerals. Starting with “I,” Melford opens the date alone, her angular filigrees incrementally joined by Reid, Ibarra, Laubrock, and Halvorson, who each enter the conversational dialogue in turn. The entire quintet continues together on the modal blues of “II” with strong ensemble playing, while “III” finds them joyously embracing freedom. There are several freeform interludes throughout the suite, their spirited, succinct interplay balanced by Melford’s inspired arrangements. The stately processional “IV” features an elegiac melody accentuated by Ibarra’s exotic, detuned Filipino gongs, “V” is dominated by Laubrock’s rugged tenor, and “VIII” finds Reid and Ibarra duetting over an asymmetrical, hand-clapped beat. The album concludes with a beautiful chorale, as the ensemble drifts apart, leaving Melford and Halvorson to fade out in dusky abstraction.

Melford has led countless bands over the past three decades, including The Same River Twice, The Extended Ensemble, The Tent, Be Bread, Equal Interest, Snowy Egret, Trio M, and others. Recently however, Melford has joined two all-women trios: Tiger Trio with flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassist Joëlle Léandre, and MZM with koto player Miya Masaoka and electronic musician Zeena Parkins – a situation the bandleader has found herself seeking lately. “Coming up as a woman in this music, it felt important to show that I could play with anybody and not put myself in a box,” Melford says. “But as I’ve gotten older ... I thought, if I can put a great band together that happens to be all women, why not?” For the Love of Fire and Water is proof.
–Troy Collins


David Murray + Brad Jones + Hamid Drake
Seriana Promethea
Intakt CD 381

David Murray has fronted some great trios since turning heads with Low Class Conspiracy, his late-70s debut with Fred Hopkins and Phillip Wilson. Over the intervening decades, trios have given Murray the space to spool out his nuanced take on the tenor tradition, resulting in chimeric solos that stitch the past to the present. Seriana Promethea is a notable addition to this facet of his now voluminous discography. Murray is simply in top form, repeatedly prodded by Brad Jones and Hamid Drake, a tandem with plenty of torque who also masterfully solo whenever the opportunity arises.

The other aspect of Murray’s music that has impressively matured over the decades is his writing. His compositions have always alternately swaggered, stormed, and swirled smoke-like, but they once wore their inspirations on their sleeves, be it Ayler or Dewey Redman. Now, they simply exude Murray’s seasoned finesse with hard driving, hairpin turns-studded lines, well-spiced funk, and careening romantic melody. Murray’s approach to sequencing an album has always been one of his strong suits, and this set is no exception, as it moves briskly through his seven compositions and a jubilant take on Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.”

Murray is now much closer to being a grey eminence than a young Turk, but his early signature moves – the penetrating altissimo, the gutbucket growl, and the visceral rips through the registers – remain prominent in his playing. His decades-long straddling of the inside-outside divide has placed him among few others of his generation who have mainstream acceptance while maintaining outcat cred. That is a position that Murray can reinforce with this bona fide power trio with Jones and Drake. Hopefully, Seriana Promethea is not a one-off, and follow-up recordings by what Murray has dubbed the Brave New World Trio will be forthcoming.
–Bill Shoemaker


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