One of the year’s most eagerly anticipated albums, the Mary Halvorson Quintet’s Bending Bridges has its work cut out for it in topping the band’s 2010 poll favorite, Saturn Sings. But the new recording, which benefits from the band’s first serious stretch of playing together live, is even deeper and edgier than its predecessor. It confirms Halvorson as an artist whose originality as a guitarist is no fiercer than her originality as a writer. Simply put, no one is making music like this.
You never know how Halvorson’s songs, scripted adventures in sound, will unfold. That has been especially true since she expanded from the trio on Dragon’s Head, the 2008 album on which she launched her current cycle of compositions, to a quintet with the addition of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon. In addition to giving her a wider palette to work with, the horns have enabled her to expand her vision as an arranger.
Bending Bridges can draw you in with its airy, chorale-like harmonies, which on “Hemorrhaging Smiles” channel the sweet soulfulness of Sly and the Family Stone, and shake you with sonic pot bombs lit by Halvorson’s strafing notes. On the daydreamy “That Old Sound,” Halvorson commands attention with her languid chords and eerily massaged single notes. The closest to convention the album comes is “Love in Eight Colors,” on which the bottom drops out of a jaunty horn arrangement to open up space for solos by an unaccompanied Finlayson, Irabagon and slippery-powerful drummer Ches Smith.
For all its eruptive power, Bending Bridges preaches patience. Rooted in the dark shivering tones of bassist John Hébert, the songs take their time developing, sometimes using silence as notes and sometimes as pauses to reboot and head down a fresh path. Finlayson and Irabagon are called on less as soloists than as pillars of stability to support Halvorson’s spiky lines, tremolo effects, power chords and electronic voicings. Guitar legends, past and present, have their say in her sound: Derek Bailey meets Jimi Hendrix, Bill Frisell meets James Blood Ulmer. But you know from the way Halvorson keeps surprising you, and the natural ease with which her musical shapes shift, what a singular talent she is.
She also is featured on Camino Cielo Echo, the second effort by drummer Tom Rainey’s trio, along with her frequent collaborator, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock (Halvorson and Rainey played on Laubrock’s terrific 2010 album, Anti-House). Named after a picturesque site in Rainey’s hometown of Santa Barbara, Calif., Camino ranges from free-improvised screech and skronk to ghostly Ayler-isms to lyrical reflections. “Strada Senza Nome,” on which Halvorson’s processed chords cast a spell, was inspired by the noir classic Street With No Name.
Laubrock shifts so easily from a classic tenor sound to atonal and multiphonic effects, she sometimes leaves you wondering who the real Ingrid is. But she overcomes that with sheer passion. That Rainey and Laubrock are married provides cheery subtext to their exchanges on songs such as “Mr. and Mrs. Mundane” and “Two Words.” Known for his great supportive work with the likes of Tim Berne and Fred Hersch, the leader gets the final say, whether demonstrating his brash brilliance or Ed Blackwell-ian elegance.