The Friday Morning Listen: Mary Halvorson Quintet - Saturn Sings (2010)


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By Mark Saleski

Time to return to one of my favorite topics: Why do I like that?

Have you ever engaged in this kind of self-debate? There are all sorts of ways to play. There's the Top-40 angle: “Come On Eileen...Bawitdaba!? Hmmm...I better not tell anybody," the Angle of Pure Nostalgia: “People might look down on Boston's so-called corporate rock, but that girlfriend I had? I'll never forget Don't Look Back."

I don't want to give you the wrong idea here because the most interesting angle does not involve guilty pleasures at all but instead: pure sound. In the jazz world there are many artists who make music that non-fans sometimes refer to as “cats-on-piano" jazz. I get that. I mean, I can see why somebody might not dig on some Cecil Taylor or Peter Brotzmann. That doesn't change the fact that Taylor's clatter lights up my brain pathways as does Brotzmann's plasma-cutter saxophone. We here at SomethingElse! like to refer to this music as Whack Jazz. Don't worry. We won't hold it against you if you're not into it.

It's also important to note that the pure sound angle is independent of the music's “whackness." A great example is guitarist Bill Frisell. Though Frisell can (and has) been involved in some seriously out-there noisification, what drew me to him was his use of space and dynamics amidst his roots-drenched compositions. He manages to take in much of the histories of both country music and jazz, reducing them to their common elements. Yes, I liked the music right away, but it took me years to get to the “why" of it all.

Since I've got years of these sorts of musings under my belt, it does seem that I've gotten better at it. Take jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson: I knew right away. Sure, she plays with a lot of angularity (something I'm attracted to with nearly any form of music), but that's not all. While there are elements of her sound that are quite traditional (including her clean tone), she mixes in an array of other devices—dissonance, surprising changes in direction, distortion, chord “bends" (best use of the whammy pedal ever) that taken together make perfect sense to my ears.

Given Halvorson's resume, my attraction to her music shouldn't be surprising: Anthony Braxton, Marc Ribot, Tim Berne, Taylor Ho Bynum, Tom Rainey, Curtis Hasselbring (Either Orchestra), and many others.

So do you have any musical attractions that don't necessarily make sense? Don't worry, the reasons will come into focus eventually.

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