Maybe it's just me; but has this summer been about nostalgia? Consider Matthew Shipp's recent nearly perfect Duke tribute album, on which he pays brilliantly irreverent respects to the man. A few weeks ago I witnessed a couple of incredible sets of vintage avant covers by the Keefe Jackson Quartet at the Spot Tavern. Now here comes Mary Halvorson's long anticipated solo outing, which is 100% cover material. The challenge presented here is for Halvorson to take “band” material and write arrangements for solo guitar. She brings an eclectic mix of composers to the table, running from Duke to Annette Peacock to Roscoe Mitchell, and (mostly) stays within the structures they have written. Don't make the mistake of thinking this is laziness or conservatism on Halvorson's part. It would be pointless to deviate from the structural outlines of these songs. This recording isn't about jumping off a tune's head to get ur freak on; it's about pulling an existing song apart and piecing it back together to create the most ideal arrangement for solo guitar. That's where the heart of Halvorson's creativity lies here, no matter how brilliantly she (always) performs as a player. Exposure to her dissection and reassembly of familiar material provides a real opportunity to examine her approach to composition – and the exercise is endlessly fascinating.
She opens the disc by playing Freddie Hubbard's lines on Oliver Nelson's “Cascades” full on, with the distortion up and fingers nimble. The chords jerk and slash underneath as a wobbly support, definitely more abstract truth than blues; but the blues are all over this recording! (Surely someone jokingly suggested the title “Mary Plays The Blues” during these sessions.) Peacock's weird blues piece “Blood” follows - but where Peacock's over-the-top vocals clashed with soulless synth lines on the original recording, Mary's clean electric guitar latches onto the melody and turns it into soft soul burn. Where there was tension there is now resolution. It sounds like the knife finally went in.
Guitarist Noel Akchote's “Cheshire Hotel” is an old-timey weeper of a melody that wouldn't sound out of place on a Tom Waits album. On the version Sam Rivers recorded Akchote constantly changes tones, weaving in and out of the band. Halvorson plays against his sonic ideas, substituting Akchote's distortion and feedback for her trademark delay pedal warps. She also goes pedal hopping on McCoy Tyner's “Aisha,” layering delay and distortion on top of constantly fluctuating volume and tremelo. This is not mere electronic trickery just for the sake of filling in the gaps; it works on a musical and logical level.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of tracks that don't seem to be of quite the same caliber. On Ornette Coleman's “Sadness,” she does a great job of picking out the droning bass line while playing Ornette's part – but it's not enough to carry the entire arrangement. But I'm still on the fence on this track. The one I'm currently not having doubts about is Chris Lightcap's “Platform,” a groove track with a tumbling melody line that sounds like a rock version of Zooid. If it sounds impossible to arrange for solo guitar, it is. It has moments of pleasure and surprise, but at its worst it sounds like someone playing barre chords along with a song on her iPod at Guitar Center on a Saturday morning. It's the first time I've had the thought that Mary Halvorson may be a mere mortal like the rest of us.
So yeah, she is definitely my favorite guitarist on the planet. Reason 245: Her arrangement and execution of Duke's “Solitude” for solo guitar is so gorgeous and so flawless it brought actual salty, liquid, aggravating tears to my eyes. Call me a sap; I don't care. It's not overwrought or maudlin – Mary doesn't do maudlin anyway – it's just beautiful. And here's what I think reallygot to me: it's Perfect. It's an arrangement I wish Duke or Strays were still around to hear. Reason 246: Add an interpretation of Roscoe Mitchell's “Leola” that is arguably even better than the original and you have a masterful performance and ideal album closer.
Available from Instant Jazz and the Downtown Music Gallery