Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Mary Halvorson and Bill Frisell - The Maid With the Flaxen Hair (Tzadik, 2018)

This is a fascinating multi generational meeting of the minds featuring two of the most interesting guitarists in modern music, Mary Halvorson, whose music has ranged from free jazz to noise rock, and Bill Frisell whose Americana based music also incorporates experimental and progressive music. On this album they join forces to explore the music of guitarist Johnny Smith, an innovative jazz musician and a studio artist quite popular in the 1950's. They play ballads that are associated with Smith in the duet format, creating a melodic and accessible album that will hopefully be widely heard. Opening with one of Smith's most famous interpretations "Moonlight in Vermont," the attitude is spare and patient, with the guitarists playing the lilting melody and and then using that as a guidepost for their improvised section. The music has spiky sparks of life that bring it clearly into the modern world while hinting at the nostalgia of the past, as the duo uses their wit and energy to keep the music fresh. The title song "The Maid With the Flaxen Hair" stretches over eight minutes allowing for the guitarists to really stretch out and explore, shooting neon tones into the darkness as the notes are bent and echoed, sparkling in an abstract yes accessible manner and weaving the melody into a more expressive improvisation. "Scarlet Ribbons in Her Hair" is a shorter and more fluid performance, elegiac and somewhat melancholy and played with delicate grace, moving into "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" which makes use of the spaciousness of the setting to develop an atmosphere of subtle elegance and refined playing while maintaining the the quality of being spontaneous and sincere. Frisell has played "Shenandoah" regularly, and they are able to touch on the roots based approach that he takes while subtly tweaking it with sustained slightly altered guitar tones. The familiar standard "The Nearness of You" is given a much needed makeover with choppy and prickly sounding guitar fragmenting the melody into a kaleidoscope of color while maintaining the context of Smith's version. This leads to a spare and haunting version of "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair" with the notes hanging in the air with crystalline clarity, and the gradual weaving of the two distinctive guitar approaches in a form that allows them to flow naturally. Maid With The Flaxen Hair - amazon.com

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