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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sifter - A Deep Listening Weekend Review

Sifter: Self-titled (Relative Pitch, 2013) ****½ 

By Tom Burris

Mary Halvorson is involved in so many side projects it's hard to pick a favorite – until now.  Sifter, her trio with Kirk Knuffke (cornet) and Matt Wilson (drums), has created one of the most inviting discs of the year with its self-titled debut.  The compositions are concise.  The themes are hummable.  The solos never venture too far from home, and yet conversely it's a highly adventurous recording. 

The album opens with a country shuffle (“Cramps”) that features the main theme played in unison by Halvorson and Knuffke, a common setup for the heads throughout the disc.  Halvorson plays single notes on the bass strings until the distortion pedal stomps on the proceedings like Pappy's unruly grandson barged into the room and tried to wrestle the guitar out of Aunt Mary's hands.  Unfazed, Wilson's brushes shuffle onto the finish line.

“Dainty Rubbish” opens with a strong melody from Knuffke, accompanied by Halvorson's unmistakeable riffing on a two chord vamp.  Wilson plays with the snare off, tapping out a minimal chug Mick Fleetwood would be proud to claim.  Interestingly, Wilson gets even more minimal on the next track, “Always Start,” where his playing becomes so understated he sounds like a Moe Tucker disciple.  His perfectly sublime pulse compliments Knuffke's unwinding broken blooze lines and Halvorson's seriously warped chordal smears so that the track comes off sounding like honor students about to become dropouts. 

“Absent Across Skies” features gorgeous melancholy lines from Knuffke as Wilson's brushes, once again, are beautifully understated accompaniment.  I finally missed having a bass line around, but it only lasted for about twelve bars.  Mary's riffing and warping, so good it distracts from Knuffke's brilliant melodic lines, rides on top of Wilson's perfect pulse waves on “Original Blimp” with such humor it will make you laugh out loud.  I promise! 

Echoes of Tropicalia open the breezy “Doughy” with a beautifully understated melody from Knuffke and sweet, full Brazilian chords from Halvorson.  When she takes a tremelo-laden solo, the bass-less space underneath provides the perfect canvas.  This minimalistic approach is warm and very approachable, as on “Proper Motion,” when Wilson plays time on two cymbals for almost one minute with no other audible sound within earshot.  It draws you in like a secret.

Wilson is an ace improviser, knowing when to merely keep time and knowing when to astound by cutting loose, as on “Free Jazz Economics,” where his skills reveal him to be as equally gifted technically as he is intuitively. 

This album is loaded with surprises, as on “Back and Forth,” where the main theme goes up and down and Knuffke plays in and out.  “Forever Runs Slow In Cold Water” features Sonic Youth-esque crescendos and chord progressions.  “Vapor Rub” features Knuffke and Halvorson in a short duet that appears to be completely improvised; and a robot rock stomper called “Utility Belt” closes the disc in dramatic fashion.  Above all, this disc is Fun.  It contains a track called “Don Knotts”.  This band is called Sifter.  They have just released one of the best albums of the year.

Sifter: Self-titled (Relative Pitch, 2013) **** ½ 

By Martin Schray

After I had come across Mary Halvorson for the first time (I saw her with Anthony Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Trio) I looked for her on youtube and immediately found some absolutely excellent clips. That’s why I was wondering all the more why some of the comments below the clips were harshly offensive: “Horrible garbage! Sounds like they have never met or rehearsed”; “I can't believe this crap is subsidized!”, “Her command over the guitar is very amateur and weak” or “I don't know how any jazz fan can defend this utter shit” – and this is just the peak of the contributions.

Since then I have seen and heard Mary Halvorson quite often and it is obvious that these commentators have no idea what a great guitar player is. She is one because her approach to use the tremolo, with which she warps chords or melodies before they get too convenient, is absolutely unique and above all she has a tremendous, yet special technique.

These typical Halvorson elements run like a thread through this album. “Cramps”, the first track, starts with an alienated, abstract country/rockabilly riff which is elegantly and sparsely accompanied by Matt Wilson (dr) and Kirk Knuffke (tr) can throw in a very light-handed melody in front of this background. Yet after two minutes Halvorson steps on the distortion module and puts the track through the mill before they all come back to the theme from the beginning. This is almost classic modern jazz songwriting.

Additionally, Halvorson has a great command of almost every style. In “Dainty Rubbish” she brings in flamenco pieces, country elements, and rock chords, all played in a very minimalist way, there is no note too much. In general there are a lot of typical (post) modern jazz tunes on the album, there is a lot of unison playing between Halvorson and Knuffke, as in “Don Knotts” with its eerie swinging theme, “Proper Motion” with its chopped post-rock beginning or the classic hard bop “Free Jazz Economics” which soon changes to classic harsh jazz chords, the other returning structural element of the album because Halvorson’s chords and riffs prepare the ground for Knuffke’s varied and virtuosic playing, the interplay between the three musicians is simply sensational.

Hidden between all these great tracks there are two gems: “Absent Across Skies” and “Forever Runs Slow in Cold Water”, two angular ballads. Both show Halvorson in a Bill Frisell tradition at the beginning, before she executes what she can do best – using the tremolo to distract the way the nice melody is going, leading it to dissonant and unexpected grounds before bringing them back on the right track again.

You can say a lot about Mary Halvorson but you cannot vilify her claiming she cannot play. These negative comments only prove that these people have a preconceived opinion of what music should be like.

Watch the trio live here:

Can be purchased from Instantjazz.


Stef said...

Indeed a beautiful album!

AGM said...

There is no doubt of Mary's excellence. I consider her a sort of kinder, gentler Derek Bailey for our time. Or maybe a blend of Bailey and Johnny Smith (one of Mary's influences). The other strength of this album is Kirk Knuffke's cornet playing; indeed, it carries this album, not an easy thing to do on cornet. The one weak element is Matt Wilson's drumming. Not bad, just does not match the excellence of the other two players. I would have loved to see someone like Ches Smith in the drum seat, quicker, nimbler, and more complex together.

Tom Burris said...

Agreed on Halvorson and Knuffke, but I have to respectfully disagree re: Wilson. I thought Wilson's support was understated and perfect for the trio. He reminds me a bit of Denis Charles in this respect. He's doing what Charlie Watts refers to as being a "band drummer," like himself. I think Wilson is putting the collective music - of which is he one-third contributor - over an egocentric display of technical ability, which he also has to spare (see "Free Jazz Economics").

Colin Green said...

Martin, on the whole YouTube comments are complete tosh, consisting of adolescent one-liners, and hardly deserving of critical attention. Where comments are allowed, there’s barely a free jazz/improvised clip that isn’t accompanied by the comment: “These guys can’t play”.

Do not underestimate that this music really is a minority interest, even in jazz circles, which is why so little features in Downbeat polls. There’s a good economic reason why many of the reviews on this blog are of LPs limited to 300 or 400 copies.