In her first week-long headlining appearance in the hallowed Village Vanguard (she had previously appeared with her quartet for one night last summer during John Zorn’s Book of Bagatelles residency at the club), guitarist-composer Mary Halvorson showcased her formidable octet, performing pieces from 2016’s acclaimed Away With You and also premiering some as-yet unrecorded pieces for the adventurous ensemble.
Seated behind a phalanx of horns—trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, Jon Irabagon on mezzo soprano saxophone (though he had played alto sax on the opening night of this run), tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik—the prolific composer and fearless improviser was fairly hidden, though her presence loomed large in the room through her forcefully percussive comping against the contrapuntal horns and the entrancing themes she wove with pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, the secret weapon of this singular octet. Bassist Chris Lightcap was the rock-solid anchor in the midst of all the swirling activity of Halvorson’s visionary writing while drummer Ches Smith fueled the proceedings with a colorist’s approach to the kit and remarkably daring instincts.
Alcorn, a pioneer of the pedal steel guitar in improvised music, is well versed in the history of that 10-string instrument most commonly associated with country music. She is familiar with every pedal steel player from Alvino Rey, the popular Swing era bandleader, to Lucky Oceans of the western swing band Asleep at the Wheel to country and jazz great Buddy Emmons, the only pedal steel player to successfully incorporate Charlie Parker’s “Scrapple From the Apple” and Pat Martino’s “The Great Steam” into his repertoire.
But Alcorn has chosen a different path, as she demonstrated from the jump on her extended, unaccompanied intro to “The Absolute Almost,” a tune from Away With You, which had the pedal steel ace incorporating microtonal sounds, volume pedal swells and atmospherics to dramatic effect. That opening tune also established the indelible chemistry that Halvorson shares with Alcorn. Their textures and tones mingle and overlap at times, creating intriguing latticework patterns that make it hard to tell who is playing what. What they achieve together is at times orchestral. Add an exhilarating fanfare of four horns to the mix and you’ve got a huge, abundantly rich sound.
Tenorist Laubrock blew blustery tones in the freewheeling spirit of Albert Ayler and Frank Wright on “Fortune Teller,” a new Halvorson composition receiving its premiere at this Vanguard gig. Drummer Smith underscored this kinetic number with a kind of energetic, interactive pulse, demonstrating a clear connection to the Rashied Ali/Barry Altschul/Joey Baron lineage. Halvorson added to the momentum of this piece with spiky comping, furious strumming and spacey delay lines on her Guild Artist Award archtop guitar beneath Finlayson’s bracing trumpet solo.
Counterpoint was key on “Safety Orange,” from Away With You, as Halvorson’s cleanly-picked string-skipping technique combined with Alcorn’s simple ostinato to create a mesmerizing foundation for the horns to dance over. The guitarist also unleashed one of her signature solos here, incorporating her deft use of pitch-shifting effects to create a slightly off-kilter feel.
Bassist Lightcap opened an as-yet untitled piece with a resounding arco intro before Smith jumped in to provide the forward momentum. Alcorn added some dissonant, Monkian comping on this number while Halvorson held down the rhythm with some steady comping that was right out of the Freddie Green-Bucky Pizzarelli book. Irabagon and trombonist Garchik each turned in commanding solos on this unnamed number.
Lightcap opened “Old King Misfit,” also from Away With You, with a virtuosic upright solo before the piece kicked into a powerful arrangement of interlocking parts that packed the wallop of a King Crimson number. Midway through, the piece opened up to a rubato free-for-all between guitar, pedal steel and drums that had Halvorson dipping into her Derek Bailey bag and also allowed Smith’s sensitive colorist instincts to come to the fore.
Another new Halvorson composition, the subdued ballad “Echo Road,” opened with an intimate duet between Garchik’s trombone and Lightcap’s bass before the guitarist and pedal steel player entered with more intricate contrapuntal lines. Irabagon also channeled his inner Johnny Hodges with some lyrical playing on this noirish number.
They followed with “Spirit Splitter,” a rousing tune from Away With You that sounded like it could be the national anthem of Freedonia from the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup. This piece built to a volatile section of free drumming and intense call-and-response exchanges between alto sax and trombone, then segued to a gentle chorale between the horns before shifting back to the stately theme.
Halvorson closed out her Vanguard debut with the dark hymn “Fog Bank,” which began with some very deliberate, lyrical playing by trombonist Garchik before Alcorn stepped forward for a powerfully provocative pedal steel solo that teetered on the microtonal edge. It put the perfect exclamation point on this exhilarating evening of octet music. DB