Six Degrees of Mary Halvorson’s Illusionary Sea

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 10.08.13 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

There are two principal routes to jazz distinction: Be a great stylist on your instrument, or have some interesting compositions to bring to the tradition. The guitarist-bandleader Mary Halvorson has pursued both paths, which is why she's been an audience (and critical) hit since her debut as a jazz-ensemble leader, on the 2008 trio date Dragon's Head. Since then, she's steadily grown her band — expanding it to a quintet on most of 2010's Saturn Sings, and for all of 2012's Bending Bridges. If the latter album felt a bit like treading water (with compositions that were never uninteresting, but somewhat same-feeling), that might have been because Halvorson was already in the planning stages for something bigger.

Here it is. Illusionary Sea reveals Halvorson's new septet of well-drilled contemporary jazz luminaries: Ingrid Laubrock and Jon Irabagon on saxes; Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet; Jacob Garchik on trombone; John Hebert on bass; Ches Smith (sometimes of Xiu Xiu) on drums. The opening minute of polyphony on the title track reveals that Halvorson isn't just into bigger and bigger bands for her ego's sake: She's got the writing chops to make all the twisting lines memorable.

And then you have Halvorson's smoking, surprising guitar licks to contend with. "Smiles of Great Men" continues the tradition of Halvorson's distorted, indie-adjacent riffage. And the frenetic close of "Four Pages of Robots" is an occasion to indulge some of her noisiest post-punk impulses. But there's great excitement to be found in the quieter, longer tunes, too. Note how, in the last minutes of "Red Sky Still Sea," a soulful motif crops up in the trumpet and guitar parts. After a few repetitions and refinements, the hook wins over the other horns, leading finally to a restatement of an earlier theme. It's a glorious combination of old-school harmony with post-AACM jazz compositional form. Halvorson even executes enough of her own ideas to feel comfortable including a cover for the first time ever ("Nairam," written by guitarist Philip Catherine). Given all this richness, Illusionary Sea feels like a young composer-instrumentalist's finest outing yet.

The Teacher

Halvorson is one of the many current stars (like saxophonist Steve Lehman) to have studied with the tenured, MacArthur Genius Grant-winning composer-improviser up at Wesleyan University. But you don’t just learn from Braxton in the classroom: You learn from his huge, diverse discography. These early sessions (originally issued together as a double-LP) show the young Braxton’s desire to court all sorts of forms. (Ignore the titles given on these reissues, as they are both unwieldy and not in line with Braxton’s own opus-numbers.)

The first volume’s kickoff is a blitzing duet for the saxophonist and Chick Corea (on acoustic piano) that seems to anticipate advanced post-minimalist patterns. The second track on the second volume is a modern classical rumination for 24 tubas. There are also burning post-bop workouts, extended ballad-esque pieces, and a saxophone quartet item. Both jazz and more-than-jazz, it’s an aesthetic adventure that inspired Halvorson’s own wide range of genre-curiosity.

The “New Thing” For Guitar

Ask The Ages

Sonny Sharrock

Every avant-jazz guitarist needs to grapple with the legacy of Sonny Sharrock. Not recorded as frequently (or in as many contexts) as he should have been, this late-career release is a critical stop on the Sharrock-appreciation course. Joining up with vets from the original "new thing" movement, like saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and drummer Elvin Jones (late-period Coltrane collaborators, both of them), yielded of the guitarist's most successful blends of swing and driving attack. Plus, it offers memorable compositions (just try to forget the triumphant theme of "Promises Kept"). Black Woman is still essential, as are Sharrock's under-heard contributions to the Marzette Watts and Company album. But Ask the Ages is, for many next-generation players, the first eye-opener.

The Punk-Jazz Forerunner

Marc Ribot can play the blues straight — more or less — for Tom Waits or Robert Plant, can swing properly with the likes of Allen Toussaint, and can also go out-there with John Zorn. But a guitarist with such an elastic sensibility needs his own projects, too. Ceramic Dog is the band that lets Ribot merge all his musical fascinations: rowdy anthems ("Lies My Body Told Me"), driving alt-rock (the title track), halfcocked reggae ("Ain't Gonna Let Them Turn Us Around"), plus winding instrumentals ("Prayer"). Ribot's own two-guitar band with Halvorson, titled Sun Ship (after the Coltrane record), has yet to hit the studio, but in the meantime, fans should enjoy the work by her drummer (Ches Smith) in this outfit.

Apple O'


Was it really only 10 years ago that Deerhoof put out this focused blast of outre experimentation? The past decade of brand-conscious indie sameness makes the interval feel a lot longer. (At the time, this record was considered the band's move toward the mainstream!) If you didn't get on the San Francisco oddball group's wavelength back then, now's a perfect time to luxuriate in the energy of "Dummy Discards a Heart" or the structural left-turns of "Panda Panda Panda." There's a tune in Halvorson's book of compositions — "Sea Seizures," from Saturn Sings — that a bandmate once dubbed her "Deerhoof song." (A listen to the distortion tone used in songs like "My Diamond Star Car" will make the influence clear.) But the cheerfully inventive rhythm section work should also appeal to those with a taste for Halvorson's winding tunes.

The Gospel Ingredients

Jesus Gave Me Water

Soul Stirrers

Halvorson is fond of citing her affection for Sam Cooke's early gospel group — but similarities have sometimes been difficult to identify, at least on the surface of her music. Illusionary Sea sheds a little additional light on the connection. Now that she has more instrumental voices to write for, you can hear the influence of arrangements — specifically the balance between group interplay and soloist abandon — found on old Stirrer numbers like "Jesus Paid the Debt" and "End of My Journey." It's probably no accident that the tradition rings louder for Halvorson this time around, now that Jacob Garchick is playing in her band; his "atheist gospel trombone album" The Heavens is rife with bluesy accents, as are many of his new solos on Illusionary Sea.