Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea (2013)

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“Write for larger ensembles,” advised Anthony Braxton to one of his brightest protégés. That, in a nutshell, is the impetus behind Mary Halvorson’s fourth and freshest project as a leader, Illusionary Sea.

Perhaps you may have noticed this is credited to the “Mary Halvorson Septet,” not the “Mary Halvorson Quintet” or the “Mary Halvorson Trio.” The young visionary guitarist, composer and bandleader has progressed from Dragon’s Head to Saturn Sings to Bending Bridges, adding Jon Irabagon (alto saxophone) and Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) along the way to her base trio of her, John Hébert (bass) and Ches Smith (drums).

Illusionary Sea introduces her seven-piece band, which is same as above, plus Ingrid Laubrock (tenor saxophone) and Jacob Garchik (trombone). The incremental approach to transforming a band seems so logical in her case, since Hébert and Smith are so well attuned to her musical language, as are Irabagon and Finlayson, for that matter.

I initially approached this record with the mindset that Halvorson was adjusting her small combo music for a larger group. In actuality, her music, with all its intricacies and competing harmonies had always been “bigger band” music. Now, she finally has the configuration that matches her highly detailed compositions. “Smiles of Great Men (no. 34)” is one of those songs that is vintage Halvorson with its tapping succession of notes that relentlessly repeat and then start wandering up and down. This time, the extra brass flush out the intention of the approach to a greater degree, making the melodies richer. And when solos are performed — in this case Laubrock followed by Irabagon — Halvorson keeps the rest of the band busy by devising come accompanying charts for them that are almost improvisational themselves, and then are suddenly transformed into a more formal arrangement.

Even that song isn’t as unpredictable and boundless as “Four Pages of Robots (no. 30). Here, a sophisticated contrapuntal arrangement is formed among the horns, Halvorson and Hebert. The song breaks down in middle around the 4:00 mark, suddenly going from dense to mostly diffused. Garchik does extensive improvising around this time and at some point only Smith’s funky tempo is the only thing keeping the song going. As a choppy horn chart plays out, Halvorson does one of her patented guitar freak outs to end the song.

Halvorson thus does a lot of things, both conventional and not, with four horns at her disposal. On “Illusionary Sea (no. 33)” the interwoven horns kick this whole thing off. In fact, Halvorson makes it the centerpiece. During Garchik’s trombone lead, she’s bringing the rest of the horns in and out as her guitar blurs the distinction between comping and soloing.

For the first time on a Halvorson record, a non-Halvorson tune is performed, this being Philip Catherine’s “Nairam” but perhaps better known as “Maryan” on Robert Wyatt’s Schleep album. The cover is revealing more than anything else for highlighting one of her non-jazz influences. One can now see the similarities between her music and that of one of the most enduring and creative artists of the Canterbury scene. Her version retains much of the airy quality of the original, with the brass adding a dash of stateliness to it.

I’m not going to guess when Mary Halvorson’s next album after Illusionary Sea will come out or what it’s going to be called, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it was credited to the “Mary Halvorson Octet” or the “Mary Halvorson Big Band.” And, it’s a safe bet it won’t sound like any octet or big band you’ve ever heard. That’s because Halvorson’s singular musical conception prevails no matter how many more musicians are added.

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Illusionary Sea is set for release on September 10, by Firehouse 12 Records.

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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