Mary Halvorson’s Illusionary Sea

I first heard Mary Halvorson about four years ago, when she played with Jason Moran and Ron Miles at the Jazz Standard in New York City. I didn’t fully understand what she was doing (I still don’t), but she seemed to be painting some new colors in jazz, or at least in jazz guitar—the ice-crystal intonation, the off-kilter harmonies, the quasi-chords that seemed to dart nowhere till the neon lit up the path in the night.

Since then, I’ve listened to a couple of her CDs. The compositions started out with furtive intrigue and striking imagination, but sometimes, after a couple of minutes, the improvs would devolve into chaos, as if she or her band didn’t quite know where to take the premise.

But her new album, Illusionary Sea (Firehouse 12 Records), marks a breakthrough. The band is a septet, instead of her usual trio or quintet, and maybe all she needed was an expansion of sounds, timbres, and harmonic possibilities to fill the space.

The songs (all but one by her) are head-spinning adventures, but they also swing, and, even when the musicians soar out beyond the head, they never lose the thread, never abandon the anchoring beat, groove, template, or whatever.

Halvorson, 33, is an unusual jazz musician. She told the New York Times Nate Chinen, in 2008, that she never much liked jazz guitar, doesn’t listen to jazz guitar records. As far back as high school, she found herself drawn more to Ornette Coleman, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Anthony Braxton (who wound up teaching her at Wesleyan University). Among guitarists, her model was Jimi Hendrix rather than, say, Wes Montgomery.

Her band is a young stellar bunch. It grew out of her trio with bassist John Hebert, who’s also in Fred Hersch’s trio, and drummer Ches Smith, who often plays with Tim Berne and Marc Ribot. The others are trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, who plays in Steve Coleman’s Five Elements; Jon Irabagon, the tenor saxman in Dave Douglas’ quartet; Ingrid Laubrock, who’s played alto sax with Kenny Wheeler but also Siouxsie & the Banshees; and trombonist Jacob Garchik from Slavic Soul Party and John Hollenbeck’s Large Ensemble.

They’re all composers and leaders in their own right, and worth following.

I’m not familiar with Nick Lloyd, who recorded, mixed and mastered this album, and also works as chief engineer at Firehouse 12, a New Haven recording studio that also serves as the small venue for a live jazz series. The sound is very good: dynamic, well-blended, tonally true. (I just now see that the album is also available on vinyl. I’ll check that out.)

jjberry's picture

John Atkinson's picture

jjberry wrote:


Thanks very much for the link. There are other formats available as well as FLAC; I purchased the Apple Lossless version of the album.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

jimtavegia's picture

Would have been a nice way for us to preview her work.  She remains a mystery. 

torturegarden's picture

You can preview the entire album using the Bandcamp link jjberry posted in the first comment.

JimAustin's picture

Fred, I bought one of her CDs a few years ago--don't recall which one--and there was this incessant buzz throughout the recording (not just in her guitar sound). I couldn't figure out if it was a defect or some weird effect she was going for. Was it "Thin Air"? Anyway it was unpleasant and I sold it.

Does this ring a bell?

George.H's picture

Reading honest reviews is the best way that we can decide whether or not we want to listen to a particular artists CDs. Thanks for your thoughts. I hope that you will keep providing great insights.



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