Review: Mary Halvorson

Review: Mary Halvorson Trio
(Vortex, December 14th 2009; Video by Shuffleboil)

New York. It’s good to be reminded of the energy and the vitality of the city which never sleeps. A place where the polite English phrase “Please may I have…” translates into “Gimme….” That occasional refuel of New York caffeine is some combination of an imperative, a duty and a pleasure. And if one can get it here in London, without needing to venture forth with our sadly depreciated British pounds, so much the better.

The team who run the Vortex understand the need to get that fix, and they do their utmost to fulfil it by putting on the New York musicians from the downtown scene who are getting talked about. Brooklyn guitarist Mary Halvorson tours Europe regularly, but this was her only UK appearance this year. Sufficiently remarkable, indeed, to lure the outside broadcast team and the van from Radio 3. Jazz on 3 will broadcast the gig on January 28th.

Mary Halvorson ‘s trio with John Hebert on bass and Ches Smith on drums is a regular working band , currently doing a seven-date European tour. Halvorson herself has played on several of Antony Braxton ‘s projects, and in other settings: in a duo with violist Jessica Pavone, and in an alt-rock duo with Kevin Shea.

The clip above is typical. You often get the stating of an insistent pulse, the setting up of a groove, which doesn’t so much get developed, as collided into, interrupted, and then re-asserted and revisited. None of the tunes was announced – I assumed they were all by Halvorson herself- they set up differing moods, and are allowed to speak for themselves.

In the first tune the dominating voice was the upright bass of John Hebert, (pronounced ebb-bear). A sustained, unbroken legato line based on a repeated riff was allowed to grow in volume until it got angry, then got pounced on and thumped hard by all three players, and then re-emerged quietly again from the carnage. Halvorson, directing proceedings was mostly in a subsidiary comping, commenting role here.

But even when she’s leading, she doesn’t overwhelm with fast licks. More likely she’ll interject an insistent pulsed semitone clash, or a repeated melodic or scalar fragment. But there is always an underlying sense of control and of the structure.

Structure is a word to use with care with this music. While each number is written out, and all three players are often to be found referring to the written page, the structures are not designed to give the listener any comfort or predictability. Maybe even quite the opposite. There are false signals, blind alleys. And as for the endings, they are precise, deliberate, and clearly pre-determined; but at the same time they manage to be curious-oddball, tricky, and above all, impossible to second-guess. Sometimes silence and repose seemed to come precisely when you least expect them.

Ches Smith is a drummer with big physical presence. At one point Smith’s hand was not deemed sufficient to get the tension he wanted on a side drum skin: a long leg with very large baseball boot on the end of it got lifted into service.

The effect of size and power which Smith exudes is compounded by the fact that Halvorson herself is so tiny, about five foot tall. She is a strong musician who dominates from the corner. She’s calling the shots, but with undemonstrative, unshowy playing, and virtually no looping or effects.

This was an intense gig, it’s music which demanded full attention and absolute silence. The Vortex has done well to cultivate an audience which responds to music of this seriousness. Not a comfortable or comforting evening, but a fascinating and worthwhile snapshot of a defiant, confident, edgy genre-crossing strand of contemporary music.

Categories: miscellaneous

2 replies »

  1. Seb, you have really highlighted the importance of the kind of music that Halvorson's trio are composing and playing and that essential link to the NY scene (cf Buffalo Collision which the superb Vortex presented this year) – and the respect this engendered in the rapt audience.

    If I can just add the odd observation in support:

    Mary Halvorson's trio questioned safe musical boundaries all the time they were on stage – playing with an impressively high standard of musicianship and a valuable intelligence. Their interplay as a group was impressive – to achieve both melodic and off-beat flows in the area between free-form and notated scores needs a complete awareness of what each co-musician is doing at all times. Both sets were beautiful, with an emphasis on Halvorson's oblique patterned runs of notes and almost invisible chord work. There were gentle lyrical passages, offset against intense percussive play from the trio which took me to an Ornette/Blood Ulmer gig of a while ago. A truly rewarding musical evening.


  2. Nice review. I thought the sound mix was a bit off in the first set, with Mary way too low. It was back on track in the second though. Here's a clip:

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