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Recording of the Week, Mary Halvorson - Cloudward

Image: Ernest Stuart
Image: Ernest Stuart

Mary Halvorson is, in many ways, a fully-fledged embodiment of living, breathing talent and skill — and not simply on account of her receving the prestigious MacArthur Grant in 2019. Breaking down musical boundaries as instintly as she concocts and identifies them, listening to her work is akin to undertaking a blindfolded taste-test in an ice cream factory. Some flavours, sweet, others, sour, but all still deliciously refreshing. 

After many years of recording and performing on the New York scene, her twin albums Amaryllis & Belladonna (2022) came as a joint-label debut for Nonesuch. This pairing of free-form sextet exploration with an up-to-date self-penned string quartet topped end-of-year charts, receiving critical praise en masse upon its release. An open invitation had been extended with an outstretched hand to the musician for several years from the label, but it was only when Halvorson felt the time was right that she took up their offer of actually recording. Clearly still reeling from the reception of those previous records, she has opted to keep her former personnel intact; thus, the Amaryllis-band lives on.

So, where to begin with Cloudward? Well, the guitarist has stated that the album’s inception lies in the post-pandemic lifting of travel restrictions, and it’s with this regained sense of voyageing that Halvorson and her ensemble head for the skies. Taking off in liberated fashion, opener ‘The Gate’ is a sporadic jamboree of like-minded individuals. Taking shape as an open-ended emotional spree, luckily, it never overwhelms; rather, the music invites you to dig deeper as you take a closer look at the present mystery unfolding. The same goes for following track ‘The Tower’, named for the tarot card meant to represent revelatory upheaval and change. Whilst in its esoteric context the card signifies potential damage and harm, there’s no fraught risk of any danger here. Instead, we are supplied with an instinctive feeling of trust and admiration shared across Halvorson's bandmates; in particular, the thoughtful colourings of Patricia Brennan on vibes, not to mention the watchful tones of trombonist Jacob Garchik.

With the album wholly maintaining the initial stratospheric mobility it conjures up from the very start, it's nobody’s guess that Halvorson’s brand is caustic music. Approach it without the right delicacy and it could spontaneously combust, bursting into flames and erupting away within seconds like a magnesium strip. But, that’s not to say we should do away with the alchemy outright! One especially reactive passage comes on the track 'Incarnadine', in which special guest and Nonesuch label-mate Laurie Anderson's violin fleetingly calls out of the dark like an interplanetary message, beamed from distant light years beyond our current reach. 

In an online video tutorial where she sums up the way in which her method of free improvisation came about, Halvorson highlights her earlier job of balancing improvisatory work with more conventional and straight-ahead gigs. I must admit, this fact came as a surprise to me, since I struggled to envisage a performer who could be so adept in either field simultaneously; especially one who credits her tuition under the formidable experimentalist Anthony Braxton amongst the most formative experiences of an already glistening career.

Image: Julian Parker-Burns
Image: Julian Parker-Burns

In any case, witnessing an axe-wielding shredder tear up a series of discordant passages before hearing that very same player break into ‘Stella By Starlight’ might be a disconcerting experience all for one night, and one that could potentially put novices off jazz for life. Then, I realised, Halvorson is greater than all these facets combined. What her recollections ultimately revealed was the discipline and strength of her commitment to branching out as an artist, underpinned by the reality of being a working musician in a major city without the luxury to decline job offers that only comes with financial stability.

It’s this humility that I think stands out the most in Halvorson’s compositions on Cloudward, which already sees her confessing parts of her own personality in modest fashion. A major player on the American scene, the well-earned appreciation she deserves in the UK still, for the most part, remains to be seen. Here's hoping that, with the release of her new album and performances across the globe, this surprising musician will continue to reap rewards for many years to come. 

Mary Halvorson

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