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Season of the Sequel: From Junk Magic to Code Girl, Some of Fall's Best Sounds Signal a Return

Tim Berne
Courtesy of the artist
Craig Taborn, who appears on new albums by Dan Weiss' Starebaby and his own project Junk Magic.

At one point in the process of compiling WBGO’s 2020 Fall Preview, I realized that a handful of this season’s most anticipated albums amount to More of the Same — and that this wasn’t cause for disappointment, but rather a source of delight.

To be clear, I’m not referring here to reissues or rediscoveries, though the fall landscape brings a good many of those, by everyone from Bill Evans to Sonny Rollins. This also isn’t a matter of repertory tributes, like Tim Garland’s exploration of the Stan Getz album Focus, or Lionel Loueke’s homage to Herbie Hancock.

No, the phenomenon in question is less commonly associated with improvised music than with major movie studios: a sequel. From guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl to keyboardist Craig Taborn’s Junk Magic to drummer Dan Weiss’ Starebaby — each of which has an exclusive track premiere below — the weeks ahead are full of albums that extend the life of a big, bold idea, often with superior results.

The conceptual dimension is what differentiates these as sequels — rather than sophomore albums, like vibraphonist Joel Ross’ Who Are You? (out on Blue Note on Oct. 23) or even the Joshua Redman Quartet’s RoundAgain (which Nonesuch released over the summer). In order to have a sequel, you need a clearly defined idea to begin with, something other than the rapport of a killer band. You might not even need a band: consider Morgan Guerin’s self-exploratory album The Saga IIIwhich releases this week, and features him on more than a dozen instruments (with an assortment of guests dropping in). 

Another example hot off the presses is Lead Belly Reimagined, by drummer Adam Nussbaum. With Ohad Talmor on saxophones and both Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley on guitars, it’s a modern-jazz interpretation of a folk-blues forefather — and also a follow-up to the 2018 album The Lead Belly Project, released on the same label, Sunnyside, with the same personnel.

The original Code Girl, also released in 2018, staked out unfamiliar artistic territory for Halvorson, who has never shied away from such a thing. “It’s a departure in the sense that it was a totally new concept,” she told me then, in a profile for NPR. The album featured her song lyrics for an ensemble combining elements of art-rock and chamber-improv. Halvorson has only deepened that amalgam on the second Code Girl album, Artlessly Falling, due on Oct. 30 via Firehouse 12 Records.

Credit James Wang
Mary Halvorson, third from left, with the other members of Code Girl: Adam O'Farrill, Michael Formanek, Amirtha Kidambi, Tomas Fujiwara, Maria Grand.

After the release of Code Girl, Halvorson toured the project, with Adam O’Farrill occasionally subbing in for Akinmusire. O’Farrill steps in fully on the new album, which also adds María Grand on tenor saxophone and vocals. Artlessly Falling also finds space for an honored guest, the British art-rock pioneer Robert Wyatt, whose music helped nudge Halvorson in the direction of Code Girl in the first place. Wyatt’s vocals are a prominent feature on several tracks of the new album, including “The Lemon Trees,” its opening track.

“Private crisis of the now,” Wyatt sings, outlining oblique intervals that will ring familiar to any longtime admirer of Halvorson’s music. “These indolent visions, parched.” The song also includes a fine solo by O’Farrill, and an assertive performance by the rhythm section, which has a separate life together as Thumbscrew. Altogether, the track indicates growth, and a stronger foothold in the ever-slippery identity of the group.

For Taborn, a pianist attuned to the minute particulars of tone and time, there has been a longer interval between the original and the sequel. His album Junk Magic was released on Thirsty Ear in 2004, the same month that Google launched Gmail. 

At the time, writing in the Village Voice, I hailed its seamless meld of improvised and electronic musics (both the ambient and metronomic kind). “Percussion arrives in programmed layers — first a sputtering hint of rhythm, then a high-contrast loop that finally bursts into polyrhythmic clangor,” I wrote. “Unusually for jazz, it employs texture as a plot device, abiding electronica’s art of crescendo by accretion.”

It’s no exaggeration to call the album groundbreaking, partly for the ingenious curve of Taborn’s design, and partly for the way his band mates — tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart, violist Mat Maneri and drummer David King — find ways to make the music buckle and breathe. All of which is even truer, though a lot less uncommon now, on the new Junk Magic album, Compass Confusion. (As with “Code Girl,” “Junk Magic”started out as an album title and morphed into a band name.)

Taborn brings Maneri and King back this time, subbing in Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, and adding Erik Fratzke on bass. This a passel of musicians with all kinds of overlapping history, and it shows here. (It isn’t a new roster for Junk Magic, either; I reviewed a set by this precise lineup at The Stone, in 2009.) 

Listen to the transfixing opening cut, “Laser Beaming Hearts,” and in addition to Taborn’s aesthetic kinship with Detroit techno titan Carl Craig, you’ll be reminded of how many hours these improvisers have devoted, separately and in various configurations, to shifting the balance between abstraction and groove.

That elusive factor — the irreplaceable experience of developing a project over time — might be what nudges any good sequel toward the threshold of great. It also partly explains why today’s improvising artists are so drawn to revisiting their strongest ideas. Before the global disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, the lifespan of a project often began with the execution of a concept on record. That could lead to bookings, for months or even years, creating a situation where the live experience delivers far richer results than what had been originally captured in the studio. Why wouldnanyone want another crack at it?

This was a core reason that led pianist Aaron Parks to create Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man. As he told me this spring, when he announced that album, he made its precursor, Little Big, before the musicians in the band had found their deepest cohesion as a unit.

Over the next year or two, Parks and Little Big (again, an album title that became a band name) toured extensively, establishing a language together. Following up on that progress, with new material composed for those added capacities, seemed only reasonable. I have to imagine that a similar calculus led cornetist Ron Miles to reassemble the all-star group from his excellent 2017 protest album I Am a Man. His forthcoming effort, Rainbow Sign, stakes a less thematic claim, shifting the emphasis away from concept and toward execution. On a fundamental level, it’s a show of confidence in the glowing rapport of his band

The same is true for Weiss, who released Starebaby in 2018, building on almost a lifetime of dual allegiance to modern jazz and progressive metal. That album — which, like all the others I’ve mentioned here, earned acclaim in and out of jazz circles — marshaled players of like mind and fearless heart, including Taborn.

Credit Remi Angeli
Starebaby on tour: Ben Monder, Trevor Dunn, Dan Weiss, Craig Taborn, Matt Mitchell.

The other members of Starebaby are Ben Monder on guitar, Matt Mitchell on piano and Prophet synthesizer, and Trevor Dunn on electric bass. All are back for Natural Selection, which Pi Recordings will release tomorrow. And there is no way to hear the new album without confronting the almost manic intensity this band unlocked on tour, without ever compromising the integrity of Weiss’ compositions.

“Head Wreck,” the closing track, is a perfect illustration of this. Set atop a latticework of loopy polyrhythm, which Weiss articulates right away, the tune quickly brings in a bone-crushing power chord. The keyboardists establish a jagged interval series, and later an ostinato that feels lifted from a horror movie. Every moment in the track, including Monder’s doomy interlude around the six-minute mark, feels informed by live experience. This is a band that worked to find its balance, and then kept working.

In the end, this is one thing all of the exciting new sequels have in common: a work ethic, leading to a transformation. What began as a promising idea became something to sustain and interrogate, under variable conditions. Proof of concept was on the bandstand, a living spark set to ignite — and at a time when the tours are all suspended and the clubs are mostly dark, that feels more vital than ever.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.