A mere two months following yet another highly thought-of ensemble record, guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson has returned with some stimulating one-on-one. In this latest such instance, Crop Circles (Relative Pitch) pits her against (or rather, with) Sylvie Courvoisier.
Halvorson has always thrived in a duo setting: Jessica Pavone, Noël Akchoté, Stephan Crump to name a few; Halvorson’s duets with the violinist Pavone even got her much of her initial notice some ten years ago. This time she goes toe-to-toe with a pianist who is likewise one of the most creatively distinctive women in avant-garde jazz.
The Swiss-born Courvoisier is the fairly rare highly trained musician who has been able to apply her ample skills toward developing a voice all her own. She leads or co-leads a number of mostly small ensembles that include Mark Feldman, Drew Gress, Marc Ribot, Kenny Wollesen and Ellery Eskelin. Numerous collaborations have involved John Zorn, Erik Friedlander, Herb Robertson, Enrico Rava and Evan Parker. Given hers and Halvorson’s predisposition for working with any musician who shares a zeal for crafting challenging scores and carrying them out in extemporaneous performances, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the paths of these two extraordinary women would cross.
That finally happened last year with an engagement at New York’s Cornelia Street Cafe, leading eight months later to a single day recording session at Courvoisier’s home studio. Each brought tunes and worked them out together and by the end of the day, ten tracks were in the can.
It’s a given that Crop Circles was going to be highly artful — and it is — but the affinity heard between the two is something that can’t be taught. The two often navigate across a tightrope of synchronicity, such as on “La Cigale,” where they erupt with clusters of notes with such density it sometimes seems that there are three or four of them playing, especially when Halvorson turns her guitar into a tornado-making machine. The unison, impossibly knotty avant-bop lines that forms the head are remindful of Lennie Tristano. The clipped notes on the brief “Water Scissors” is so synergistic and telepathic, there are practically four hands with one mind. “Eclats for Ornette” begins and ends with a precarious, harmolodic head that they somehow make it through in tight conformity. For “Downward Dog,” Courvoisier splits her brain with her right hand following the serpentine path of notes with Halvorson as her left hand effortlessly offers up the complementing chords.
Other performances are much more spacious but no less full of intrigue. The spare “Aftershock” sports subtleties like pairing the bass strings of the guitar with the left side of the piano and a symmetry that’s maintained through the slight mood adjustments. Halvorson is heard playing slide like no one else on “Woman In The Dunes” and later brandishes effects pedals as the two ride the song on swelling and receding tides of emotion.
With “Your Way,” the two demonstrate how pretty melodies have a place in avant-garde. Although it’s Halvorson’s song, Courvoisier immerses herself in it and totally inhabits it. Those wanting to hear Halvorson go crazy with her signature guitar effects need to look no further than “Absent Across Skies,” where she deploys them so effectively to add both jarring eccentricities and shape to Courvoisier’s dark, strange chord progression.
This meeting of two of the brightest minds on the edgier side of jazz today produces music that’s astonishing both in its fluency and ceaseless ingenuity. Crop Circles can be purchased directly from Relative Pitch Records here.
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