Long a fixture on the Chicago and Bay Area scenes, percussionist/multi-instrumentalist and improvising composer Weasel Walter has been in New York since 2009, immersing himself in both the free improvisation and art-rock worlds. And, while he may be loath to admit it, his ability to move between different areas of extreme music has given a charge to a number of genre-snubbing musicians and groups. It’s no surprise that Walter’s relocation to the East Coast would feed into collaborations with stylistically fluid artist-technicians like guitarist Mary Halvorson and trumpeter Peter Evans, in both duo and trio settings. While a significant amount of Walter’s work in the improvised realm has been high-octane and very free, the trio with Halvorson and Evans has more in line with sparse and rigorous chamber improvisation — cue the halcyon days of European free improvisation or Japanese free music. Of course Mechanical Malfunction is of the now, but the reference points are undeniably there.
Halvorson, in addition to leading her own squirrelly modern jazz ensemble, works with composer Anthony Braxton, is in the knotty indie rock band People, and belongs to an oddball chamber-folk duo with violist Jessica Pavone. Evans is part of a number of tradition-upending jazz ensembles, including his own quartet/quintet and Mostly Other People Do the Killing (led by bassist/composer Moppa Elliott). He’s also part of the brutal prog trio Pulverize the Sound, with drummer Mike Pride (From Bacteria to Boys) and bassist Tim Dahl (Child Abuse). Both musicians utilize an expanded palette — the guitarist employing loops, distortion, and pitch-bending, and the trumpeter beholden to circular breathing, smears, gulps, and electrifying screams.
Mechanical Malfunction is the second disc to feature the trio of Walter, Halvorson and Evans, following 2011’s Electric Fruit (Thirsty Ear). There is one crucial difference here, and it can naturally be described as a result of time working together. While their first disc focused on free improvisation, this new program features compositions by each member of the trio in addition to a pair of group improvisations. To paraphrase saxophonist/composer Steve Lacy, once total freedom is exhausted, sometimes the only way further out is through constraining that freedom with compositions. Granted, the pieces on Mechanical Malfunction aren’t extraordinarily complex, from what I can tell; they’re more along the lines of frameworks that might nudge the improvisations in certain directions or give a player some grist for the instantaneity mill. There are also pieces that encourage repetition and slight variation, ad absurdum.
The disc starts with “Baring Teeth,” a shortish group improvisation that, through aggressive grouping of particulate notes and gestures, draws an aesthetic line in the sand. We can tell what the palette is without necessarily having heard the writing, for this is what the compositions stem from: a trio lobbing volleys toward and against one another, mostly in middle and upper tonal ranges. Without a bass or piano, the trio veers toward top-heaviness, though the range of brassy chuffs (check Evans’ resonant low tones on “The Last Monkey on Earth”) and weighted distortion keeps structural tension in play. “Vektor” is the first composition on the record, increasingly distorted staccato phrases from guitar and drums matching Evans’ split-toned shouts and charged classicism, which skitters over and through an agitated minimal state. The trio then moves into freer areas, Halvorson diving and pirouetting as Walter rattles and surges militaristically, punctuated by incisive and clarion brass chortle. There’s a brief written rejoinder at the close of the piece, which brings home the acerbic RIO-like vibe that Walter’s pen often embodies.
“Klockwork” is one of two pieces that Evans contributed to the date; it seems looser than either Walter’s brutal-prog aesthetic or Halvorson’s calmer knottiness. This is a venue for detail, short and piercing trumpet blasts ever more closely stitched together and matched by clambering and lacy guitar, edges slowly rounded as Walter jabs and patters with subtle variations in density and attack. Following a section of collective improvisation, the trio engages hushed particularity in small groups of notes, guitar and trumpet in a holding pattern against nattering woodblock research. The trumpeter’s agitated “Malfunction” is particularly fine and could be mistaken for a Weasel Walter composition. Reminiscent of Evans’ work in the progressive irritant Pulverize the Sound, futzing with metronomic time and breath/phrase control, each member of the trio trades off a closely valued line of notes against weirdly thudding tempi. It’s an interesting approach that is both lunkheaded and exacting. Halvorson’s “Organ Grinder” begins with a gorgeous guitar-drums duo, graceful scumble and tuned crash moving into an elegantly pulsing dance as Evans adds crackling flits and tweaked muscle. A robust and explosive duet for trumpet and percussion follows before the three close in crisp, metallic unison. It’s a brief piece, but so economical as to require nothing more.
To be sure, trumpet, guitar, and drums might seem like limited resources, and one wouldn’t be entirely wrong in saying that, but Weasel Walter, Mary Halvorson, and Peter Evans have found a way to make constraints compelling. Lightly accentuated with electronics and a little pedal wizardry, Mechanical Malfunction is still an ultra-lean recording, and the compositional material emphasizes that. In fact, its leanness and technical push can hew towards the exhausting — much of the music is based on short, twisted phrases; tight intervals; and cruelly tense stasis. Therefore, what fascinates in this music is what also frustrates (and I think that’s part of the intent). Nevertheless, Mechanical Malfunction is a strong and recommended recording for those who like their improvised music with an extra set of teeth.