Wow. In a septet context, Mary Halvorson’s music gets all warm and cozy.
That might be an impolite thing to say in avant-garde circles, but listen to the billowing horns in the title track.
A lot of Illusionary Sea is like that: lovely sounding horns and quilts of melody, but enough room for Halvorson’s prickly guitar grunge. Richly melodic elements were present with her quintets — “Hemorrhaging Smiles” on Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12, 2012) or “Crack in the Sky” on Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12, 2010) — but to my ears, they’re amplified with the expanded horn section of the septet.
The eccentric guitar lines that made Halvorson’s trio such a delight are still there. But listen to the almost circus atmosphere early in the guitar solo on “Smiles of Great Men (No. 34).” The horns add a bright sound, and Halvorson plays along with a swinging melody before taking the song off the rails.
Halvorson even shows her hand at traditional jazz comping on “Four Pages of Robots,” setting down the backing chords while one horn solos. Of course, that mode doesn’t last, and as the horns wind down the piece, Halvorson obscures throws sheets of guitar spackle at the melody. That’s one of Illusionary Sea’s best tricks: mixing jazz horns with attack-mode guitar in a way that makes sense.
So, when I talk about the music being “nice,” it’s less about losing edge and more about gaining depth. The compositions are still rooted in avant-rock guitar sketchings, but they’re fleshed out with sophisticated horns — a step further toward the jazz side of the spectrum. The ensemble’s progression from trio to quintet to septet seems like a reflection of Halvorson’s desire to say more with the music.