I don't pay a great deal of attention to what other jazz critics say about records as I probably should; chalk it up to laziness, I suppose. But even my lazy ass couldn't help but notice all the interest in media circles buzzing around guitarist Mary Halvorson's record released earlier this month, Saturn Sings. The jazz nuts at NPR have been going gaga over it, and so has Jason Moran. The notoriety and praise has even gone international.
Halvorson is a relative newcomer on the scene, although she has one other album out (Dragon Head, 2008). Wielding a big, hollow bodied Guild guitar, she plays very intuitively, and can go from docile to demonic and back again at the drop of a hat. In a a lot of ways, Saturn Sings parallels with John McLaughlin's excellent early work Extrapolation: the fractured, exploratory lines seem to owe little to bop language as interpreted by Montgomery, Kessel or Pass, and oftentimes move right up to the line that separates jazz and rock without crossing over it. But Halvorson is not a McLaughlin clone, either. She's got a signature move, kicking in some sort of whammy pedal at the most pointed times, whether in the middle of strumming or articulating single-line notes. When you first hear her nosedives, you think some engineer had varied the pitch of the entire recording before realizing it's just the guitar that got out of whack, and intentionally so.
There's something about Mary for sure. A refreshingly adventuresome talent, who doesn't believe that being avant-garde should mean tearing your ears off at every turn even if she is prone to peel off a blizzard of bent notes without warning. Her influences start with Anthony Braxton and extend into Yusef Lateef, Tomas Fujiwara Robert Wyatt and a host of other disparate influences. She even cites Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye as inspirations, although I have to admit to having a hard time finding their fingerprints on her music.
Saturn Sings distinguishes itself from her debut primarily by expanding her trio to a quintet. That means Halvorson, John Hébert (bass) and Ches Smith (drums) are joined by a horn section consisting of Jonathan Finalyson (trumpet) and Jon Irabagon (alto saxophone). A little bit a brass went a long way toward giving Halvorson's compositions more musical shape, but she doesn't bring in Finalyson and Irabagon on every cut. One of the trio tunes happens to be one of the standout tunes, Sea Seizure (No. 29)."
Halvorson strums vociferously with feedback at the outset, throwing off an indie rock vibe, but soon trades that for softer and jazzier motifs. Once she settles into a Braxtonian chord pattern, she improvises in her offbeat way and kicks in the effects when she briefly gets in a shredding mood. The way she simultaneously modulates and navigates her guitar around the abstract tonal figures is pretty damned nifty. And Hébert and Smith manage to react appropriately. In truth, they are reacting well to what she's doing the whole song, getting strident when she does and dropping down the tempo when she downshifts, providing counterpoints along the way.
Listening to this and a couple of the other tracks on Saturn Sings, I get why Halvorson is getting people excited. When putting it up the album as a whole against this year's offerings by her more established contemporaries like Bill Frisell and Nels Cline, I'm more inclined to keep the anointing oil in the cabinet, but with the idea that it will most likely be pulled out at some point. In the meantime, Saturn Sings might be worth picking up for taking in a uniquely skilled and idiosyncratic guitarist who is just beginning to spread her wings.