If there is one word that cannot be used to describe Mary Halvorson, it’s stagnant. In the past decade, the unconventional guitarist has been consistently expanding the range of her creativity, appearing on a staggering amount of recordings while developing a strikingly singular compositional approach. Code Girl, the name of Halvorson’s latest record and band, stands adjacent from the progression that began in 2008 on Dragon’s Head. Instead of adding another musician to the original trio with Ches Smith (drums) and John Hébert (bass), which has slowly grown into an extraordinary Octet, Halvorson looks to Thumbscrew, a collaborative band with Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Michael Formanek (bass), and makes two exciting additions, Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) and Amirtha Kidambi (vocals).
As this is the first time a Halvorson-led band has included a vocalist, Kidambi naturally stands out. Considering the angularity of Halvorson’s projects over the years, it’s easy to see why the news of the inclusion of a vocalist may leave some fans scratching their heads. However, no matter how far-out moments on records like Illusionary Sea and Saturn Sings got, there were still regular reminders of the guitarist’s particular sense of harmony and melody. Moreover, crucially, Kidambi is anything but your typical jazz vocalist.
The fascinating juxtaposition between Kidambi’s classical training and her improvisational approach, which is heavily influenced by her study of South Indian Carnatic music, is a key aspect of her singing style. “Pretty Mountain”, which opens up with Halvorson and Akinmusire playing a knotty, disjointed version of what Kidambi eventually presents as the main melody, is a great example of her range. Kidambi soars with an operatic tone and improvises with disorienting beauty in the last portion of the track. The singer’s lines become more jagged and adventurous as her solo goes on while the rest of the band decomposes behind her. She stands out again on “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon”, which begins with a gloomy descending haze of guitar notes before Akinmusire’s warm tone briefly takes center stage. Kidambi’s solo is thrilling – she sings with a beautifully harsh instinctive power, ending the solo by rising to a screech. Fujiwara is particularly impressive near the end as well, turning into a one-man thunderstorm by soloing at breakneck pace.
The inclusion of a vocalist seems to have freed up Halvorson’s compositions to delve into non-jazz/free-improvisation-based genres. How Kidambi sings over the cloudy guitar lines and bowed bass in the opening minutes of the melancholy “Storm Cloud” has more in common with the more dirge-like moments of a band like Radiohead than with any vocal jazz ensemble. “My Mind I Find in Time”, which opens up with a dazzling use of a delayed echo effect by Halvorson and closes with a strong Akinmusire solo, has Kidambi sounding fit for a dark, psychedelic-folk track. What directly informs Code Girl arguably runs wider than any past Halvorson-led project. The guitarist, who is behind all of the compositions and lyrics, has cited influences including artists such as Robert Wyatt, Elliott Smith, Deerhoof and Joni Mitchell.
Although at times it sounds quite different from the rest of her catalogue as a bandleader, the musicianship in Code Girl, like Away With You and the albums before it, is consistently top notch. “Possibility of Lightning” serves as a great example of why Halvorson’s guitar technique has led to her being constantly in demand in avant-garde jazz circles. She turns up the distortion and shreds through the first three minutes of the song, her rapid tremolos being matched by Fujiwara’s intense drumming. Conversely, the opening theme of “The Beast” features intricately gorgeous moments of shadowing and counter between guitar, voice and trumpet. The song, which ends with a skillful Formanek solo, is an example of how effective Halvorson can be – even in a relatively restrained setting.
This band is an answer to the complaints that jazz fans who prefer the avant-garde may have against a more straight-ahead minded vocal jazz affair. The improvisation is bold and while Kidambi’s vocal melodies are understandably centered, other members of the band, frequently Akinmusire and Halvorson, share the spotlight with her. With Kidambi’s remarkable improvisational style and quality delivery of Halvorson’s abstract and often somber lyrics, Code Girl never feels like it’s the first time the two musicians have collaborated. Based on the strength of this captivating double disc, hopefully it’s not the last.
Code Girlby Mary Halvorson is out now on Firehouse 12 Records.
Mary Halvorson (guitar, compositions, lyrics)
Michael Formanek (bass)
Tomas Fujiwara (drums)
Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet)
Amirtha Kidambi (vocals)