Heights of Thin Air

Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone — Thin Air (Thirsty Ear, 2009)

source: thirsty earThis duo is not meant to be a pop project, but it’s also intentionally not high art. And it took some getting used to, I have to admit.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson is involved in any number of exciting out-jazz bands, including her own trio and Tim Berne’s Adobe Probe, as well as plenty of improvising combos (lots of recent work with Weasel Walter, for instance). She’s the one who’s been all over the music headlines lately, but Jessica Pavone, a violin and viola player, has put out some impressive composed and improvised work, too — edgy and improvised, but with roots closer to classical music.

Together, they abandon all of that work in favor of simple songs and instrumentals, or so it might seem at first glance. The music is spare, with relatively simple melodies. Cloying, sometimes. When the tune “Clearing,” which opens their 2007 album On and Off, came up one too many times on shuffle, I realized I couldn’t take it any more.

But after a long listen to Thin Air and a revisit to On and Off, I started to “get” it. Maybe it’s more that I resigned myself to accept that this is how they wanted the music to sound. The presentation is honest and unpretentious, and it’s not calculated, according to a cover story in Signal To Noise. This is their songwriting; this is their singing.

The first thing most people are going to notice are the unpolished and diffident, almost sluggish, vocals. Songs like “For You or Them” include dissonances that are probably intentional (considering how lock-step their harmonizing is on other songs) but create an off-key ringing in your ear.

The instrument playing is often languid, too, with slow tempos and sad melodies that almost feel nursery-rhymey. But the experimentation and sophistication of Pavone and Halvorson’s other work is in there. Some of Pavone’s viola passages, in particular, get nice and showy. “Barber” shows a blatant classical influence and gives both players, especially Pavone, the chance to really cut loose with soloing techniques. “Lullaby,” another instrumental, has a pastoral feel, with touches of Renaissance music during a short pizzicato stretch.

It’s not all peaceful music, either. Halvorson switches on the distortion for songs like “Sinking” and “Thin Air,” with the latter featuring abstract clicking and improvvy scattered notes at the end.

Not everyone is as slow as me to convert to Pavone and Halvorson’s side. According to that StN article, Matthew Shipp wanted to sign them to Thirsty Ear immediately after seeing them perform. What seems like a half-baked attempt at simple charm has a lot more depth to it, if you look from a different angle.

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