Mary Halvorson Quintet – Bending Bridges (2012)

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photo courtesy of Improvised Communictions (feature photo by Amani Willett)

Bending Bridges,” reveals Mary Halvorson, “is a title I came up with in a semi-conscious state”, the same as how most of the titles in her songs come about. Her music on the other hand is of the sub-conscious kind, starting from a firm point of reference but chasing intuitive notions down to their illogical but more interesting destinations. “Bending bridges” can mean a lot of different things: crossing over links between jazz and rock, but doing so in a non-conventional or “bent” way. Or maybe it can mean the way she bends her notes as she plucks them near the bridge of her guitar. Or, redirecting the vistas of musical thought to newer forms of music. Whatever that cool title means, it would be empty without cool music to go behind it.

Luckily, she walks that walk, too.

Bending Bridges marks her first album as the leader since her widely acclaimed Saturn Sings (2010) catapulted her into the company of Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell and Nels Cline as the most cutting-edge guitarists working today. That watershed album introduced The Mary Halvorson Quintet, her Trio expanded by two horn-playing participants. For her, Bending Bridges is probably not so much trying to outdo Saturn as it is the opportunity to make a record with a five piece band with whom she’s spent a lot of time performing over the last couple of years. Ches Smith (drums) and John Hebert (acoustic bass) form the rhythm section, and Jon Irabagon (alto sax) and Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) share the front of the stage with Halvorson.

Bending Bridges continues on the path traversed by Saturn Sings, as Halvorson’s music suggests indie rock, whack jazz, and even more traditional jazz but never dwelling anywhere. Her propensity to abruptly change her temperament across these styles has become a calling card of hers, but the thrill of surprise remains even after you know it’s coming. As when she pivots from docile to demonic in the 5-7 minute stretch of “Sinks When She Rounds The Bend (No. 22)”, ending with the dying strains of a musical wreckage.

Her contrarian bent is sprinkled throughout and typically nestled in the crevices of the conventional: the differing segues between bars on “Hemorrhaging Smiles (No. 25),” for instance. Both Irabagon and Finlayson put in their best — and most conventional — solos here. As for her own leads, the odd run of notes Halvorson articulates in the intro to “All The Clocks (No. 29)” might not be Joe Pass, but it’s imaginative and refreshingly unique. The “quintet” becomes a “trio” for four of these nine tracks, and Halvorson uses the occasion of this setting to demonstrate her ability to use pedal effects to contort melodies. Both Hebert and Smith tend to run wild during these tracks, too. Of these cuts, “The Periphery of Scandal (No. 23)” stands out for the way she wrings a trembling resonance from her guitar, and “Deformed Weight of Hands (No. 28)” is uncommon telepathy with her rhythm section.

If you’re looking for where Halvorson has moved forward with her composing savvy, you’ll find it at “Love In Eight Colors (No. 21)” (YouTube above). It’s here where she has shown the mastery of composing for horns, utilizing them fully for harmony, rhythm and improvisation in a completely integrated way. Especially notable is Finlayson’s a capella performance that maintains a sharp focus as Halvorson and the rhythm section re-enter and the trumpeter seamlessly hands off to Irabagon in the midst of a really gnarly patch of chord changes. The performers play well but the leader conceived and scripted something intricate that never feels stilted or constrained.

Every new Mary Halvorson release affords us the occasion to witness the blossoming of one of the most unique voices in jazz guitar to come around in a while. Bending Bridges continues the flowering of Halvorson and though I think we’ve yet to see full bloom, that flower is looking mighty good as it stands.

Bending Bridges goes on sale May 8, by Firehouse 12 Records.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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