It’s something of an event when, in this type of music, there’s crossover/poly-genre potential from a single artist’s work. Sometimes it comes through a musician working with figures in another field — say, pianist-composer Matthew Shipp’s collaborations with electronic and hip-hop composers as part of Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series. In other instances, it might be inherent in the music itself. Guitarist and improvising composer Mary Halvorson has appeared on a few Thirsty Ear releases, including a creative indie-folk duo with violist Jessica Pavone and an itchy-scratchy trio with drummer Weasel Walter and trumpeter Peter Evans. Halvorson is one-third of the art rock group People, part of the excellent chamber jazz quartet The Thirteenth Assembly, bassist Trevor Dunn’s (John Zorn, The Melvins) group, and leads or co-leads a variety of other ensembles. In addition she has turned the “guitar chair” on its head in a number of side-person appearances. In a town of thousands of busy and unique musicians — New York — she’s one of the busiest and most unique. Bending Bridges is her second quintet disc and third for New Haven label Firehouse 12, featuring nine compositions fleshed-out with drummer Ches Smith, bassist John Hébert, altoist Jon Irabagon, and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. The result is a series of darting and complex but boppish and robust pieces that display a cohesive grab bag of approaches.
With a fairly minimal pedal setup, Halvorson coaxes a range of sounds from her hollow-bodied axe, leaping across intervals, shifting pitches, and constructing odd voicings with a hefty dose of distortion. Her strokes are thick and muscular, ultra-concentrated while also quick and resourceful. That being said, her quintet music is rhythmically jaunty and rather accessible, yawing between bright, swinging sections and freer passages. A lesson in how Halvorson puts things together is “Forgotten Men in Silver,” a trio piece (like all of the tunes here, it’s titled by writing words down in a half-awake state) that begins with a coda of reverberant unaccompanied strums and cymbal wash. Bass and drums thread a choppy backbeat offset by flitting walks, Halvorson laying down a lemony progression and employing wistful clamber before delving into pitch-divided shimmer and muted scrape. Against a stuttering metronome, the guitarist returns to the fore with narrow thematic elaboration, additive and worried pluck soon becoming a mass of darts and seasick dives alongside the rhythm section’s accented field. The piece closes near where it began with a dusty tone row.
“Love in Eight Colors” follows, moving from a lilting line into brash particulates as Finlayson stretches into fat, unaccompanied cadences. A very swinging player, he holds attention on his own and carries a driving rhythm even as guitar and rhythm build a spontaneous cloud. A wry saxophonist in Mostly Other People Do The Killing and his own somewhat winking ensembles, Jon Irabagon’s biting tone and detailed shimmy is an excellent foil for Halvorson’s knotty volumes. Alto and guitar interleave burred reflection as the rhythm section acts as both counterweight and snappy meter, resulting in Smith’s melodic solo tumble.
Lest one think Bending Bridges is entirely beholden to modern jazz quirks, Halvorson retains a connection to avant-rock throughout. For example, “The Periphery of Scandal” rises and twirls, shimmering dissonance gradually spilling out into crunching fuzz and snatches of Don Caballero-esque craftiness. “Deformed Weight of Hands” is squirrelly and chunky before taking a turn into uneasy sashays and a blurred prog/postbop hybrid (think early Deerhoof melded with Tim Berne). It’s easier for the rockish impulses to be carried out in a trio setting, perhaps, and that’s certainly part of why Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12, 2009) was so successful. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of appeal to the gentle, pointillist, and dryly angular interplay between her and Irabagon on “Sea Cut Like Snow” or the presence of Finlayson’s incisive, straight-arrow whine.
One thing that Bending Bridges presents — and even considering how the music moves between crags and elisions — is that Halvorson’s compositional approach is now a lot more refined and smoothed-over. Not that subtlety is a negative (on the contrary), but her music at this point might not shake one so vigorously with its challenges. Rather, they’re arrived at with an enduring delicacy and thoughtfulness.