The state of the art in Take Five: Mary Halvorson, Jacob Garchik, Ches Smith, Julius Rodriguez, and Seabrook Trio
Improvised music is always taking on new forms. Here are a few brand-new surprises.
Mary Halvorson, "Flying Song"
Mary Halvorson, the unstoppably inventive guitarist and composer, has explored all manner of ensemble configurations over the last 15 years, finding new possibilities around every corner. For her debut on Nonesuch this Friday, she conceived not one but two new situations: a powerhouse sextet, with peers like vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, and a chamber string project, with the Mivos Quartet. Back in March, I wrote a little about Halvorson's foray into writing for strings, and shared her first single, "Night Shift," from Amaryllis. Her latest single — "Flying Song," from Belladonna — showcases the sensitivity and insight in her orchestration for Mivos, which consists of violinists Olivia De Prato and Maya Bennardo, violist Victor Lowrie Tafoya, and cellist Tyler J. Borden. The composition hinges on a single shard of melody, an angular four-note motif. But as Halvorson spins variations on the theme, listen for how much color and texture she develops in the string quartet, and how her guitar holds the pulsating center.
Ches Smith, "Interpret It Well"
Percussionist Ches Smith is a compulsive collaborator most at home on the fringes; his web of deep musical relationships includes Mary Halvorson, Marc Ribot and Tim Berne. On a transfixing new album, Interpret It Well, Smith connects with two of his most telepathic band mates, pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri — and welcomes a prominent guest, guitarist Bill Frisell. But there's no sense of a visiting dignitary on the album, which puts every improviser on equal footing, working through Smith's material with extreme attunement to the pivotal potential of every interaction. "By the time we entered the studio, it no longer felt like 'trio plus Bill,'" observes Smith in his liner notes. "We were a unit. Our approach to the compositions was improvisational — using space, lyricism, sound, density, noise and aggression, depending on the moment." The album's title track, which turns in a number of unexpected directions, is a perfect illustration.
Jacob Garchik, "Fanfare"
By now it might seem as if we've seen every iteration of pandemic album, from the captured livestream to the multitracked collage. But we haven't seen something quite like Assembly, the new album by trombonist, composer and arranger Jacob Garchik. Due out this Friday, it's a swirl of energies informed by our recent era of restrictions. Garchik began by convening some regular partners — Sam Newsome on soprano saxophone, Jacob Sacks on piano, Thomas Morgan on bass, Dan Weiss on drums — in a proper recording studio early in 2021. They played standards and some blues, in the spirit of a blowing session, and then Garchik took the tracks home and began to process what he heard, forming new compositions out of those raw materials. "Fanfare," the first available track from the album, conveys the spirit of this experiment. As the title implies, it begins in a formal and declarative mode — but then slides into a recognizable melody, Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood."
Julius Rodriguez, "All I Do"
For a while there, if memory serves, Julius Rodriguez had a rather pithy social media bio: "Stevie Wonder enthusiast." Of course, he's many other things besides: a keyboard whiz, a groovy drummer, a burgeoning guitarist, a producer and composer. His forthcoming Verve debut, Let Sound Tell All, should plant a flag for his multifarious skill set, though it can only begin to capture the sprawl of his musical interests. Back to Stevie, though: Rodriguez puts his money where his mouth is, with this fond interpretation of "All I Do," which references the bass ostinato and swinging backbeat of Tammi Terrell's version of the tune. The lead vocalist is Mariah Cameron, a childhood friend of Rodriguez; South African jazz singer Vuyo Sotashe lends a hand on backing vocals. And along with Rodriguez on piano, the ensemble features a couple of mentors from Juilliard: Ben Wolfe on bass and Joe Saylor on drums.
Seabrook Trio, "In the Swarm"
The brutalist side of '70s fusion has often been carried forward more by prog-rock and metal bands than by jazz improvisers — notwithstanding the valiant efforts of a flamethrower like Hedvig Mollestad. This is one reason to take note of any new album by Seabrook Trio, which consists of Brandon Seabrook on guitar and banjo, Gerald Cleaver on drums and electronics, and Cooper-Moore on diddley bow. In the Swarm, which Astral Spirits will release on May 20, is the second album by this configuration. And it captures the bewitching accord between twitch and drone that Seabrook and his partners know how to create. On the title track, note how the twang of diddley bow and banjo are almost entirely transplanted out of a rustic framework by Cleaver's ominous low-end and rustling beat. This could be the score to someone's nightmare, but for those who prefer John McLaughlin on the heavier side, it unfurls like a dream.