Living in the City

mary halvorson quintet @ the hungry brain, 6 november 2011.

Playing to a sold out room at the Umbrella Festival, guitarist Halvorson and group made music that was very urban, full of cement, steel, and glass. There was not a lot of nature in here except for the feeling of glimpsing it occasionally on the edges or in the cracks between the built environment. Maybe a park here or there, the river or the bay just beyond the buildings, but mostly sidewalks and vertiginous gazes upward at the sky or down the grid. Yet there was no feeling of being trapped. There was something else, not ominous, but comfortable, cosmopolitan, curious, something crisp and sharp in the music, the pace of walking through the city, ducking in and out of subway entrances, popping down there and up here, around squares and through small parks, between private and public spaces, moving with timed traffic lights and occasionally down side streets only to turn back again to the main thoroughfares.

Mary Halvorson Quintet. Photograph: Peter Gannuskin.

The compositions and improvisations were complex, but they had an organization to them, a discipline. In fact, much of the music seemed to be more about locating steady balance and occasional leaps of insight within order than about locating the order in some kind of free jazz flight. This was music of the mole’s eye view, not the bird’s escape. It never went beyond the ken of one person’s perspective at the ground level. It wasn’t really about liberation, nor spirituality, nor even group interplay. There was plenty of excellent ensemble work of course, but it all seemed in the name of evoking the individual’s brainy pleasure of simply feeling alive in the built environment of the postmodern city. Halvorson and group entered into something rather than escaping it.

Bent note and dissonant arpeggios were not bluesified but intellectualized. This was a sound of thinking as well as feeling—and of probing the relationship between them. It wasn’t body music but perhaps it was social body music, interested in sensations and ideas of autonomy among the multitudes, of living not obscenely rich but not desperately poor either, well-educated but unwilling to go along with the dominant system, seeking out the connections and movements to be made in the hidden spheres, the corridors beyond the corridors of power.

This was music that occupied the city’s labyrinth and charged it with life. In their own, highly original way, Halvorson and group stomped the blues, but they were not trying to finger the jagged grain of aching consciousness so much as navigate a system of infinite networks. Though maybe, these days, for many people, those are one and the same.

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