DUSTED MAGAZINE

Dusted Reviews

Mary Halvorson Quintet - Saturn Sings

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist



Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted


email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews


Artist: Mary Halvorson Quintet

Album: Saturn Sings

Label: Firehouse 12

Review date: Oct. 4, 2010


Mary Halvorson Quintet - "Sea Seizure (No. 19)" (Saturn Sings)


Guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson’s first album as a leader, 2008’s Dragon’s Head, confirmed her as an innovative compositional voice. Her sophomore effort, Saturn Sings, constitutes an expansion of her unique approach to melody and harmony, but it also gains a certain fluidity in construction and execution due to the playing styles of her comrades.

The addition of two musicians to her working group allows Halvorson to paint in finer detail on a broader palette. The trio of Halvorson, bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith, which graced her debut, is now augmented by trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and saxophonist Jon Irabagon, a player whose best work unites freedom and tradition in an effortless way that complements Halvorson’s approach to the guitar. Both break out of convention at a moment’s notice, but with no pretense and with admirable ease.

An astute rhythm section is necessary to make such impulsive flights of fancy successful, and Smith and Hebert again are more than up to the task. Finlayson is, in some respects, the most traditional melodist, but in this, he provides welcome contrast to the freedoms invoked by the others. Listen to the pools of calm he generates in the midst of chaos on “Moon Traps in Seven Rings” while still managing to swing during his tasteful solo. He can invoke Michael Mantler’s soft-grained breathiness along with Fats Navarro’s sweetness and range while never slavishly imitating either of them.

Halvorson’s playing has always been spectacular, alternately embracing and eschewing rhythmic and melodic convention with the confidence of ever increasing experience. Her work with Anthony Braxton is an obvious influence where sudden rhythmic deviations are concerned, and she continues the now ubiquitous use of pitch-warping delay pedals that sets her apart from everyone else. Now, however, these diverse stylistic elements merge with new spontaneity and freshness.

The same can be said of her compositions. While no notes are provided, her press page cites the self-examination of her 29th year, and Saturn’s return to its location at her birth, as vital to her new music. She also points toward influences as diverse as Sam Cooke and Robert Wyatt. I hear more of Fred Frith or Captain Beefheart’s melodic complexity and Carla Bley’s harmonic whimsy than anyone Halvorson mentions, but no single source can account for the myriad metric intrigues, timbre shifts and subtleties in arrangement that inform every composition. Even a more straight-forward piece, such as the quasi-balladry of “Cold Mirrors,” twists and writhes gently as Halvorson leaps registers amidst Smith’s delicate brushwork. At the other end of the spectrum is the herky-jerky precision of “Right Size Too Little,” on which sudden distortion smashes expectation (a recurring theme on Saturn Sings). Yet, there’s nothing self-conscious or pretentiously post-modern as each tune goes through its myriad changes. Its abrupt ending prefigures the album’s final dyad, a punchily honked conclusion to a wild but exhilarating ride.

My only complaint is that many of these pieces seem a bit brief; each melodic and rhythmic idea could be developed in many directions, and at times, I’m left wanting a bit more. Often, as with Bley’s case, such stylistic disparities are later harnessed in the service of a longer work, as with Escalator Over the Hill. I hope that Halvorson is headed in a similar direction -- she has the composer’s chops and the musicians to give life to a longer project.

By Marc Medwin

Other Reviews of Mary Halvorson Quintet

Bending Bridges

Read More

View all articles by Marc Medwin

Find out more about Firehouse 12

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.