Mary Halvorson: Meltframe
As a genre, the solo guitar recording is not uncommon in jazz circles and consequently certain conventions associated with it have settled in over time. The set-list is typically studded with standards along the lines of “Stella By Starlight” or “All the Things You Are,” and the playing is often more genteel than raucous. On Meltframe, her first solo guitar recording, Mary Halvorson disregards all such conventions and forges her own resolutely adventurous path, much as she has done throughout her career. True, there is a cover of Ellington's “Solitude,” but her reflective treatment transforms the original into a shimmering deconstruction where Duke's oh-so-familiar melodies emerge more surreptitiously than anything else.
Interestingly, though, the Brooklyn-based guitarist did initially set out to create a solo guitar album of jazz standards. Monk's “Reflections” and “Ruby, My Dear” would have been prime candidates for the recording, as they've both been included in her solo performances, yet as the project got underway, things took a different turn, with Halvorson deciding to move away from standards and instead play modern pieces she'd long admired. Such a move pays dividends in a couple of key ways: first, it offers the listener a refreshing respite from the usual selections for a recording of this kind (when was the last time you heard a solo guitar rendering of Carla Bley's “Ida Lupino”?); and it enabled Halvorson to play without having to deal with differentiating her interpretation of a given piece from those of other guitarists. In covering something like Tomas Fujiwara's “When,” for example, she can simply perform without having to think about how her version might be compared to someone else's. Not only is material by Roscoe Mitchell, McCoy Tyner, and Ornette Coleman included, so too are pieces by her contemporaries Chris Lightcap and Noël Akchoté. The selections are, in a word, inspired.
That Meltframe isn't a ballads set becomes clear the moment Oliver Nelson's “Cascades” opens the ten-track album with fuzz-toned electric playing that's equal parts angular and aggressive. The rendering is more math-rock than straight-ahead jazz and is merely the first surprise on an album that boasts more than its share. Eschewing self-indulgent displays of virtuosity, Halvorson always plays in service to the song, something never more evident than in her folk-like handling of Bley's “Ida Lupino”; having said that, one can't help but come away from Annette Peacock's “Blood,” its strummed chords faintly echoing "Don't Explain," impressed by Halvorson's technical ability when she alternates deftly between delicate passages and rapid-fire fingerpicking. Coleman's “Sadness” undergoes an arresting makeover when she re-imagines it as a country blues earmarked by slide playing and smeared, slightly dissonant note choices, and an even bigger surprise arises during Lightcap's “Platform” when she unleashes a series of grunge-soaked power chords.There's a freshness and spontaneity to the playing that can be explained in part by the production approach she adopted: having settled on the set-list, she recorded the tracks sans overdubs in two days, with longtime friend Ches Smith overseeing production. With no other instruments present, Halvorson's playing is more exposed than it's ever been, and consequently the listener is presented with an in-depth portrait of the musician and her repertoire of effects. With imagination and intelligence informing every gesture, the album provides a constant flow of stimulation; one instrument only might be featured, but one's attention never flags when Halvorson colours her playing with tremolo effects and bent notes, among other things.