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.