Sunday, July 21, 2019

Mary Halvorson’s Poetic License in Code Girl

Code Girl musicians Amirtha Kidambi, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara, Adam O’Farrill, and Mary Halvorson (from the event page for last night’s concert)

Last night in the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center, guitarist Mary Halvorson expanded her Thumbscrew trio, which she had been leading on Thursday and Friday evenings, to her Code Girl quintet. The members of Thumbscrew are Michael Formanek on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. The expansion consisted of trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi. (For those dwelling on the trumpeter’s name, he is the son of jazz pianist Arturo O’Farrill, who has performed at Herbst Theatre for San Francisco Performances, meaning that he is also the grandson of the other trumpeter in the family, Chico O’Farrill.) Code Girl also involved an expansion of Halvorson’s compositional scope, since she provided the texts that Kidambi sang.

Halvorson is, without a doubt, an impressively imaginative guitarist. From the very beginning one could appreciate her attentiveness to every note from her instrument, frequently working with subtle bends in her intonation (no easy matter on a fretted instrument). Sadly, Halvorson the songwriter is another matter; and Kidambi seemed hard pressed to summon a satisfying account of her texts. It was hard to avoid thinking about that old joke that Halvorson’s poetic license should be revoked.

Part of the reason may have been that the texts themselves seemed to consisted of words morphing into phonemes and then peregrinating between those two “stable states.” Another part may have involved the fact that Kidambi rarely came across with clear diction; and, even with a microphone, she never found a balance with O’Farrill that would attain the threshold of audibility. However, the snippets that were comprehensible almost seemed to suggest that Halvorson was exploring the parody of beat poetry at its most self-absorbed.

Fortunately, O’Farrill’s trumpet work was inventive enough to hold attention whenever he took up the instrument. Over the course of the one-hour set, he explored a variety of different styles involving not only a diversity of genres but several imaginative approaches to alternative techniques. The truth is that I could not get enough of him and tended to regard both the conception and the performance of the vocal work as little more than a distraction.

With a vocalist and a trumpeter on the front line, Thumbscrew took the weight of the rhythm section. However, that status did not impede the inventive creativity behind Halvorson’s guitar work. Nevertheless, what was most impressive were the ways in which that guitar work could mesh seamlessly with Formanek’s equally inventive bass work. This threatened to relegate Fujiwara to the background; but, every now and then, he would erupt with a stunning polyrhythmic interjection to remind us that he was there.

Were Halvorson to back-pedal on her interest in songwriting, she might pay a bit more attention to O’Farrill and think of expanding Thumbscrew into a quartet.

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