REVIEW: Mary Halvorson Octet at the Village Vanguard in New York

Applause for Mary Halvorson’s octet

Mary Halvorson Octet
(Village Vanguard, New York, 21 July 2017, second set, fourth night of residency. Review by Jacob Werth)

The Mary Halvorson Octet‘s eagerly anticipated debut run at the Village Vanguard has been a success. Her slightly altered line-up saw Chris Lightcap step in for John Hébert on bass, who will be at the club with Fred Hersch next week. The Octet’s powerhouse horn section, featuring 2008 Monk Competition winner Jon Irabagon alongside Ingrid Laubrock, was among few that could have done justice to Halvorson’s intricate writing. Her structured, episodic compositions suspended moments of dark, slowly contorting harmony within sections of unruly free improvisation. Elsewhere, complex polyrhythmic passages performed at some speed seemed to demand full focus; this was a masterful performance attesting to the fearsome level of musicianship here on Friday night.

Spirit Splitter began as a somewhat disturbed stately fanfare, eventually descending into a grungy chord sequence in which Halvorson’s distorted tone, supported by pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn’s metallic growls, provided a menacing backing to a superbly mellifluous alto solo from Irabagon. After eventually being joined by the remarkably agile trombonist Jacob Garchik, the tune erupted into a raucous group improvisation. Garchik was then featured alongside bassist Lightcap during an intimate duo introduction to Echo Road – a sultry march with an ever-sinking sense of harmony and a cleverly disguised compound time signature courtesy of a seemingly free and at-large Ches Smith on drums. Smith arguably had the most creative freedom in this group – his sense of groove was unwaveringly strong, whilst his will to abandon it entirely remained actionable when necessary.

Susan Alcorn, having performed alongside Halvorson in a duo last year at the Stone in NYC, opened up The Absolute Almost on her own, with a gorgeously haunting introduction bordering on the dystopian. Her harmonic palette was densely rich, and upon being joined by Halvorson it became clear how strong a pairing these two were in the creation of a powerful soundscape. Fortune Teller was another opportunity for Smith to showcase his boundless energy; his erratic, angular rhythms offset Lightcap’s steady yet irregular 14-beat groove excitingly. Later on, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, who appears with Steve Coleman and Five Elements in Philadelphia this Wednesday, got a lengthy opportunity to demonstrate his world class virtuosity on an almost mariachi-influenced A minor vamp.

Untitled, a dark, wailing ballad, further showcased Halvorson’s penchant for the harmonically contortioned, as heavily dissonant harmony was interrupted by moments of comforting warmth. The writing for horns on Safety Orange was similarly jarring both harmonically and rhythmically, however a highlight had to be Halvorson’s energetic, bumblebee-like guitar solo. Lightcap then went on to deliver a highly virtuosic introduction to the greatly cinematic Old King Misfit, allowing himself a well-earned portion of the limelight, having hitherto been a dependable servant to each tune’s groove. Finally, Halvorson pulled out all the stops on the catchy yet distorted pop hook that kicks off Away With You – enticing groove, strong melodic writing and fearless changes in dynamic that retained intensity were elements strongly featured.

The eclecticism of this group is difficult to describe. It was a cacophony of mixed emotions – jubilantly chaotic in places, achingly dark and introspective elsewhere. Consistent throughout were clear, bold ideas that gripped the audience to such an extent that one keen visitor was unable to remain in his seat. All of this surely points to the compositional excellence of guitarist Mary Halvorson.

Categories: miscellaneous

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