Mary Halvorson: Rules And The Unruly

This week, NPR Music is streaming the entirety of Saturn Sings, the new album by the Mary Halvorson Quintet. Hear the full album preview as part of our Exclusive First Listen series.


The Mary Halvorson Quintet i i

The Mary Halvorson quintet (top-bottom): Mary Halvorson, Jonathan Finlayson, John Hebert, Jon Irabagon, Ches Smith. Nick Lloyd hide caption

itoggle caption Nick Lloyd
The Mary Halvorson Quintet

The Mary Halvorson quintet (top-bottom): Mary Halvorson, Jonathan Finlayson, John Hebert, Jon Irabagon, Ches Smith.

Nick Lloyd

Often when listening to a weird, or dense, or "out" piece of improvised music, I find myself actively looking for sonic anchors. What are the structures which are guiding this stuff? What is the chord progression I might be able to expect, or where is the downbeat I can tap my foot to, or what is tying this whole thing together?

Sometimes you don't necessarily want these sorts of anchors. There are some methods of improvisation so untethered that they feel beyond idiom — beyond "free jazz," even. Think of a Jackson Pollock painting, or some such abstract work: The beauty isn't necessarily tied to representing anything. On the other end of the spectrum, there's jazz with a predetermined game plan: A beat, and a melody, and a scripted form. I think of someone like Rembrandt; a master portraitist who very much colors within the lines, and makes art out of it.

These are oversimplified polarities, sure. Personally, I like both Pollock and Rembrandt, both the prickly clusters of Cecil Taylor and the sparkling resolutions of a bop master like (say) Sonny Clark. I register the difference in intent between the abstract and the representational. But I also would like to say that there is lots of middle ground between totally "free" and totally "straight-ahead" jazz — between the axis points of art. And in those situations, it's often useful to look for the structures which undergird the work.

Take, for example, Mary Halvorson's new album, Saturn Sings. Part of why so many jazz insiders are down with her is clearly her guitar style. Man. It's a sound that takes clean, woody articulation, then ruptures it: Clashing broken chords, fallaway bent strings, dissonant note choices, outright rock shredding. It's crazy, in that good, mouth agape, "how did she do that, and why does it seem to make sense?" sort of way. And it's a big part of what she does. Let's drop the needle in the middle of the trio track "Sea Seizure," for instance:

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Pretty hairy, right? Now contrast that to the much more orderly beginning of the song:

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Those shredding riffs, set to that driving rock beat; those arpeggios set to that cymbal; the harmonic movement under it. There is forethought here; there are things written out for players.

What Halvorson's new album also makes clear is that she is interested in laying down some rules, some guiding structures, some directions. They are somewhat odd rules, sure, but they are clearly rules. Saturn Sings is arranged mostly for quintet, with saxophone and trumpet; along with her guitar, an acoustic bass and drums, this makes for a classic, identifiably "jazz" sound. And she writes actual compositions for this ensemble, with intricately overlapping voices, sections, and chord changes.

But it seems that she is setting up rules to break them, or transcend them. Dig the start of Jonathan Finlayson's trumpet solo on "Mile High Like" — and then how that two-chord groove decays all around him:

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I realize it's a horrendous reduction to say "Mary Halvorson's music is good because it combines rules and not-rules." It's not so simple a game. It also demeans the fact that it takes a long time before you can execute jazz's standard rules, and longer before you can learn to channel art, and not noise, through them.

But I do think it's one of the tensions that Halvorson seems to be interested in, and certainly exploits well. You could say the same about Ornette Coleman's compositions, or Albert Ayler's melodies, or the freebop swing of the Sam Rivers trio. There are a thousand more examples. When you have more frenetic music, it often helps to identify the guiding structures — you want something to grab hold of, to latch onto, to focus your experience.

Can you think of any other examples of anchors to unconventional music?

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