Review: Rocket Science + Mary Halvorson Quartet /Vortex

Mary Halvorson – Vortex, May 2012
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2012. All Rights Reserved

Rocket Science and the Mary Halvorson Quartet
(Vortex, 25 May 2012; night 2 of Mary Halvorson’s residency; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)

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There are no two ways about it – this was an exceptional double header which exceeded expectations. For the second night of the Mary Halvorson residency her top flight London quartet generously shared the bill with Rocket Science, the stellar combination of Peter Evans (trumpets), Craig Taborn (piano), and Evan Parker (saxes) with the added ingenuity of Sam Pluta (electronics), making their world debut at the Vortex, before heading to Amsterdam’s Bimhuis and hopping over the border to Germany’s Moers Festival.

The quartets had much in common – neither had a drummer, both were Anglo-American collaborations, in three to one ratios respectively, and each achieved a riveting musical tension. Halvorson’s was a lightly fluctuating tension, a twisting filgree, threading through acoustic pinch points and areas of tangential intensity. Rocket Science was a high voltage, high tension wire, the process of pulling the wire tighter and tighter without letting it snap courting disbelief at what could intuitively be created at the edges of the possible.

The quartets also shared a state of equilibrium, not a static balance – far from it – but one which subverted ego in the dynamic flow of sonic language, and at the same time admitted personal expression in the weave of their unique statements.

Peter Evans, the driving force behind Rocket Science was keen that they unveil their dynamic partnership at the Vortex – maybe it was because within its walls, as the Vortex’s Oliver Weindling put it, there is “at the drop of a hat – silence!” And this was the ground from which both quartets opened their sets.

Halvorson (guitar) and Ben Davis (cello) traded delicately placed single notes. Liam Noble (piano) added plucked accents from the piano wires while Rachel Musson (tenor sax) utilised the fluttering acoustic interplay as a backdrop for her raw, expressive tenor. Halvorson’s spikey peregrinations took on a faux random air and, with tentative scratching on Davis’s cello, blended in to a low humming electric echo, picked up by Noble with single keynotes. They found their way through the welling and dissipation of moods, which had a purity that avoided imagistic suggestion. Halvorson’s caustic, ground-out interludes were matched by Musson’s roaring fluency, which leaned confidently towards the vigour of Ayler’s open technique. Davis worked out in the peripheral areas – bleak, creaking, gusting, while Noble was equally comfortable reinforcing a theme or taking up an assertive, fast moving solo assault. Halvorson’s articulate brush with the unpredictable hung somewhere between the liminal and the balletic – a delight.

Rocket Science were launched on a layer of Sam Pluta’s barely perceptible electronic interference. Peter Evans simulated clarinet tones on piccolo trumpet before using his hand as mute to extrude a metallic wash, while Parker briefly flushed out trumpet timbres on soprano sax. Taborn focused intently on the piano’s bass registers to fill out the terrain. The colour changes were unrelenting, the shifts of pace were rapid, the quartet’s ability to read each other was uncanny. Taborn matched Pluta’s whirring electronic insinuations with exquisite, virtual non-sounds from the piano. Parker’s minute squeaks and almost unheard breaths were born out of passages of heightened activity and he followed Evans closely just tapping on the keypads.

Ear-splitting waves of frenetic brass pizzicato from Parker and Evans were picked up by Taborn with unerring fluency and pin-sharp connectivity, his technique versatile to the point of elasticity. The intense barrage was close to overwelming. Yet, this was set against Pluta’s undertow of low electronic vibrations, crackles and escapes of sound which formed an unfailingly inventive, ever-present backdrop. Evans blasted as much air as humanly possible through the tiny piccolo trumpet, and late on held both trumpets in hand, switching alarmingly between the two, chasing stray notes and squalls.

The four protagonists were masterly in conjuring tension from nowhere, like-minded in their conviction that they slam against the borders with a landslide of invention and virtuosity. There were no stars, all were equal, and the result was formidable – this was the essence of the Rocket Science proposition. A truly breathtaking experience.

Mary Halvorson Quartet

Mary Halvorson: guitar
Liam Noble: piano
Rachel Musson: saxophone
Ben Davis: cello

Rocket Science

Peter Evans: trumpet and piccolo trumpet
Evan Parker: soprano and tenor saxes
Craig Taborn: piano
Sam Pluta: computer, electronics

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