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Mary Halvorson Octet: Away With You

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That Mary Halvorson has been able to build this octet with such painstaking, formfitting continuity over the past eight years is a testament to her compelling vision and amiable leadership, and to the complementary talents and loyalty of her cohorts. The Mary Halvorson Trio appeared in 2008 with Ches Smith on drums and John Hébert on bass. In 2010, the Mary Halvorson Quintet added alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. By 2013, the Mary Halvorson Septet included tenor Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik. Away With You breaks the add-two pattern by sifting in just one new voice, pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. But her influence is pronounced, and she is a particularly beguiling gem in the treasure trove of Halvorson interpreters.

It is striking to hear “strings” that are so prominently resonant beyond the Euro-classical tropes of bowed liquidity or brittle plucking. Halvorson’s own guitar work has always provided some of that element, but Alcorn’s distinctive presence and the ingenuity of Hébert make the strum, throb and ache of their flowing bob-and-weave an integral part of the octet’s identity. Alcorn’s extended pedal-steel intros on both “The Absolute Almost” and “Sword Barrel” unearth an Americana-jazz distinct from the Frisell-Metheny axis that is the touchstone for many listeners, and after a gorgeous three-minute solo by Hébert to open “Old King Misfit,” Halvorson and Alcorn unfurl a wonderful beehive of twined effects.

Halvorson fans should know that this string-fest is a deepening instead of a departure from her unique compositional style. The telepathic bonus of such a stable lineup allows her to compose boldly, splashing harmonic colors that variously bleed together or refract away, as the torque of the rhythms rustle, splinter, explode or fade to brief silence. The opener, “Spirit Splitter,” prances like elite parade music, intensifies to a torrid dance, wobbles off the rails to play “outside,” hangs in the ether and then returns to the parade theme, all within six and a half minutes. The closer, “Inky Ribbons,” does indeed convey the slow-motion, sinister-arty linearity of a squid emitting a string of ink through the water. Can’t wait for the nonet.

Originally Published