Even before their recording debut, “(un)sentimental,” the members of the Thirteenth Assembly had played together in various combinations and had been friends and cohorts for years. “Station Direct” is their follow-up from 2011 and shows absolutely no indication of having been anywhere near a sophomore slump. Without going through the list of projects these folks have worked on together, let’s just say that the members of the band collectively form a supergroup of the NYC improv scene and leave it at that. However, unlike most supergroup projects, this band consistently lives up to - and even exceeds - expectations. The band members support each other in ways that are empathetic and downright selfless; and their arrangements are full of surprises that always land the collective directly on its feet. "(un)sentimental" was no fluke.
The disc opens with a few distinguished viola saws from Jessica Pavone before the entire band barrels in with the sort of angular melody that is somewhat of a signature for them. However, two minutes into the track and they’ve already dismantled the thing and are into a free flipout, but maintaining a loose interpretation of the basic pulse. A minute later they have all headed for the realm of Other, ending on an ethereal note. As opening statements go, they don’t get more concise.
Tomas Fujiwara paints a drum solo merely one minute into “Coming Up,” with cymbals, toms and bass drum used masterfully to color the canvas of silence. Taylor Ho Bynum takes a cornet solo in the next spot, holding beautiful notes and then splattering sounds all over the open spaces. Ho Bynum is a player who can make you hear the entire history of jazz in just a couple of notes; and yet he manages to put his personal stamp on every sound that comes out of his horn and consistently pushes his ideas into uncharted territory. Pavone slides in with some avant psychedelia, leaving room for Ho Bynum and Mary Halvorson to contribute a muted melody underneath, creating a texturally perfect balance. Halvorson follows this with her own solo, exhibiting the traits that make her one of the most interesting and exciting guitarists on the planet today. Her tone here is bright and clean, but the overall sound also runs between a spatially flat standstill and a full, gritty blob of sonic butter. She never bends a note with her fingers; but bends full chords with a foot pedal that modulates the frequency of a normal delay pedal. She plays inside and outside simultaneously – as does Ho Bynum – and I’ll be damned if I’ve ever heard her place a note anywhere except the exact place it belongs.
The highlight of the album (in an album full of them) is “Long Road,” which opens with a more open and airy feel. Trumpet sputters, suspended chords, string plucks, light drum rolls... Pavone does a Diamanda Galas impression on her viola with the stereo delay until a beautiful melody surfaces from the instrument alone. Then a cowboy rhythm begins (!?!) – but it alternates with a blue-eyed funk beat, bringing no less than three Jim Jarmusch films to mind. Ho Bynum takes a break that is as aurally exploratory as it is full of melodic invention. He begins playing a folkish melody with Pavone; then the two are joined by Halvorson and Fujiwara as the whole band does a little gypsy swing. Naturally, Halvorson starts warping the chords with the modulator pedal, sending the group into a freeland fracas. Fujiwara gets a solo break following this; and the track ends with a perfectly paced percussion wind-down.
The album ends in a rock mode, with “Station” sounding like a long-lost 60s pop classic as interpreted by the smartest band the future could invent; and “Direct,” a mid-tempo choogler that sounds like a bit like a moody later-period Sonic Youth track. Pavone and Ho Bynum play the bridge without the rhythm section, which is another surprise arrangement that works like crazy. And Halvorson naturally turns in another killer solo break. Absolutely brilliant stuff.