Mary Halvorson – Code Girl (2018)

Share this:

Each of Mary Halvorson’s ‘main’ records where the ingeniously quirky composer and guitarist heads up a small ensemble represents a tweak on the group’s configuration. She does this to reveal a new facet in her original, pliable compositions; for that reason, every album is its own, standalone chapter in the still-evolving Book of Halvorson. For Code Girl (March 30 2018, Firehouse 12 Records), Halvorson uses a whole new crew apart from the one that’s always been anchored by the Ches Smith/John Hébert rhythm section. Well, not exactly new: The collective Thumbscrew trio of her, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek is expanded with Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) and Amirtha Kidambi (voice), and she’s fully in charge.

The term “code girl” came randomly out of the mouth of Halvorson’s primary mentor Anthony Braxton but it could have easily been directed at Halvorson herself and her approach to composition: a calculating, mathematical approach where the math is advanced algebra. She sets up each song to solve for x, always arriving there via a path no one could anticipate or readily decipher but the journey is worthwhile just for the exotic places it takes you. Just to pick out one example, “Possibility of Lightning” is typical of that Halvorson brand, marching, literally, to the beat that could have only come from her head.

But now, Halvorson introduces lyrics that are found in all but a couple of songs on Code Girl. Singing isn’t a new thing on Halvorson’s material, she’s done this on her collaborations with Jessica Pavone. This time though the lines are all delivered by Kidambi. Adopting an approach that’s the opposite of probably most songwriters, the lyrics were written first and the music was built around it. In the end, the words don’t alter the general thrust of Halvorson’s music but it serves to sharpen the edges of it a bit.

“My Mind I Find In Time” begins with Halvorson alone in a dreamy aside that reminds me of how her originality is only magnified when she’s all alone. However, the whole band acts as an effective extension of her fertile mind when they come on board, including even another true original of the current generation, Akinmusire. The trumpeter provides the expected contrast but when the two play as a unit as they do on “Pretty Mountain,” they find common ground in their disparate approaches. He gets an unaccompanied spotlight on “Deepest Similar” that’s all pure tone goodness and emits a voice-like moan on the short “Armory Beams.”

We also witness the duality of Mary Halvorson’s artistry: the clearly defined shapes accentuated by flourishes of atonality in the precise dose it takes to make you sit up and pay attention. Formanek’s direct, woody upright frames the gently prancing “Off The Record,” a non-vocal selection that instead presents Halvorson playing her customary clean lines mixed with the delayed backwash eccentricities coming from delay and her unique use of an effect pedal.

Not every song is densely charted: “Storm Cloud” lumbers along with extended notes and it’s subdued to the point that for much of the song, it’s just Halvorson, Kidambi and Formanek (playing arco), sounding close to a rock ballad. “Thunderhead” lumbers forward on Formanek’s creeping bass figure as Akinmusire and Halvorson put forth thoughtful, unhurried phrases.

For most of this fare, Kidambi’s voice blends in with the band, but for “Accurate Hit,” her singing is accompanied only by Halvorson rhythm guitar stridently strumming a cyclical pattern, a song that would fit in perfectly on an indie rock album. However, it’s on the Spanish-styled melody “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon” where the vocalist gets her most expressive and passionate (matched later on by Fujiwara’s own fervent showing).

Stretching across an hour and a half, fourteen tracks and two discs, there’s a lot here to digest but more Mary Halvorson is preferable to less. Adroitly summoning up all of her powers and the ample powers of her band, Code Girl is Mary Halvorson’s most wide-ranging effort yet.


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 jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, 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 https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
Share this:
Close