Mary Halvorson Quintet, Bending Bridges

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 05.08.12 in Reviews

Mary Halvorson has kept busy since stepping out as a bandleader toward the end of 2000s. Quite aside from her active career as a guitar-slinging sidewoman (see Tomas Fujiawara’s recent albums), she has at least three working bands under her own name. And that doesn’t count her as-yet unrecorded supergroup with avant-jazz guitarist Marc Ribot, either.

Pushing harder than ever

There’s her power trio, which recorded Dragon’s Head — and vaulted her into the modern jazz front-guard — in 2008. Soon after, Halvorson expanded the group into a quintet, adding alto sax and trumpet, and used it to turn out the brilliant album Saturn Sings. More recently, the guitarist/composer has pumped her working band into a septet: though that’s not what we hear on this, the third disc of Halvorson-written compositions — all of which bear “opus”-like numbers, in a fashion reminiscent of her mentor, Anthony Braxton.

Bending Bridges is, mostly, her quintet at work once again, with a couple of moments for trio sprinkled in for effect. The composer has shown a penchant for starting albums off with a pensive gait — the better to dramatize the inevitable rise to a steaming boil — but “Sinks When She Rounds The Bend (No. 22)” is her most rueful kickoff tune yet. Halvorson, who solos throughout this album with less frequent recourse to her pitch-shifting pedals than normal — thereby showing off a more lustrous, natural tone than listeners may be accustomed — refrains from kicking off the full ensemble rock grind of the composition until the five-minute mark. And it’s a seven-minute tune.

So “deliberate” is the watchword here. Halvorson’s pieces are getting longer; only one track on Bridges clocks in at less than six minutes. Real listening-focus is required by a sinuous piece like “Love in Eight Colors (No. 21),” which pivots between two themes in its opening minute, then cuts to a (gorgeous) bridge for the band’s horns, before setting up a series of unaccompanied solos that are linked by intermittent group interplay.

Those initial themes don’t get taken up again until the very end of the song. While you might think writing that lovely is too good to be relegated to bookend status, each second of playing by this band — particularly Jon Irabagon’s alto and Jonathon Finlayson’s trumpet — more than justifies the patience required to take it all in. Even “That Old Sound (No. 27),” a reference perhaps to its being written for trio, doesn’t sound like anything on her debut. Halvorson may have given us more “immediate” records than this one, but Bending Bridges sees the leader pushing harder than ever in the search for compositional surprise.