Mary Halvorson Octet — Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016)
Mary Halvorson‘s band, once a trio with Ches Smith (drums) and John Hébert (bass), was supposed to stop growing at the septet phase, but then she encountered pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. The result is another fine album of compositions where Halvorson creates uplifting tunes with rich arrangements for the four horns and generous spaces for thrilling solos.
Often, the compositions germinate from Halvorson’s penchant for spidery single-note lines. The horns team up to overlay those patterns, or to cut across them, creating a textures. Halvorson told The New York Times that her solo guitar album, Meltframe, pushed her to think about the music in more orchestral terms, and she’s applied those learnings effectively with this band.
Given the players involved, all of whom have established themselves as bandleaders, you can see why Halvorson was enthused to bring the septet back. Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock bring some ferocious sax solos, and Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and Jacob Garchik (trombone) add a glinting bite to the music.
The upbeat title track kind of parallels the band’s evolution. It starts with the guitar-bass-drums trio playing what’s almost a doo-wop tune, with Halvorson’s guitar chattering over a catchy chord progression that eventually twists away from the norm. As the theme repeats, the horns enter in two layers — one countermelody, one backing harmony, for a nice dramatic effect. Then Alcorn gets a spotlight, adding a touch of mystery.
I have to admit, the opening theme of “Away With You” doesn’t quite click with me. It’s elegantly and smartly arranged, especially the two layers of horns, but the main theme itself leaves me flat, which makes the whole structure less compelling. The spaces that follow, though, use the band efficiently — open spaces for solos to shine and for comping players like Alcorn to add some special frills.
Overall, though, I really like the way Halvorson puts the band to use. A track that really succeeds for me is “Spirit Splitter,” which includes into stone-skipping horn countermelodies and thickly built harmonies. In a thrilling sequence, the song pits eerie, rubbery guitar chords behind a furious sax solo (Irabagon, I think) with other horns joining one by one for a sense of acceleration.
Getting back to Alcorn: Her presence on the album is often subtle. She uses her guitar in off-kilter ways for a theremin-like touch, providing a nicely contrasting companion to Halvorson’s guitar. I like the way they dance in unison on “Sword Barrel,” slowly in the intro, and then in a jumpy way later on.
A free-jazz setting suits Alcorn nicely, as shown in her tangled solo on the spacious “Fog Bank,” or her plaintive trio with Halvorson and Hébert to start “The Absolute Almost.” A complete piece in itself, that trio intro comes to a peaceful, satisfied conclusion, then gives way to the horns, in sun-through-clouds flourishes backed by pulsing guitar chords.