Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12)

Mary Halvorson Quintet

Released October 5, 2010

Top 10 NPR Jazz Critics Poll Albums 2010




Saturn Sings is guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson’s highly anticipated follow-up to her acclaimed 2008 debut, Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12). It documents a new book of music written for her latest ensemble, the Mary Halvorson Quintet, which adds fellow New Yorkers Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet) and Jon Irabagon (alto saxophone) to her longstanding trio with bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith. These compositions, her first for a band with horns, employ harmonies influenced by such diverse inspirations as Clifford Brown, Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers, Marvin Gaye, Thelonious Monk, Alexander Scriabin, Archie Shepp, Dmitri Shostakovich and Robert Wyatt.

“Saturn Sings is a continuation of the concepts and ideas heard on Dragon’s Head,” Ms. Halvorson explains. “My interest in harmony has grown and I’m attempting to build on the foundation of guitar, bass and drums while writing a lot of close-knit and often dissonant horn lines. There are now many other directions to go in, and the horns push the trio into different realms and vice-versa. The more we perform, the more the music gets both looser and tighter; tighter because we are working on developing a band sound, and looser because we are comfortable and trust each other, which allows us the freedom to take chances and to explore within the framework of the piece.”

Track Listing:

1. Leak Over Six Five (No. 14) (Mary Halvorson) 06:44

2. Sequential Tears In It (No. 20) (Mary Halvorson) 06:02

3. Mile High Like (No. 16) (Mary Halvorson) 04:48

4. Moon Traps In Seven Rings (No. 17) (Mary Halvorson) 09:24

5. Sea Seizure (No. 19) (Mary Halvorson) 05:23

6. Crack In Sky (No. 11) (Mary Halvorson) 08:47

7. Right Size Too Little (No. 12) (Mary Halvorson) 07:31

8. Crescent White Singe (No. 13) (Mary Halvorson) 07:27

9. Cold Mirrors (No. 15) (Mary Halvorson) 05:38

10. Saturn Sings (No. 18) (Mary Halvorson) 04:28


Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet
Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone
Mary Halvorson: guitar, composition
John Hebert: bass
Ches Smith: drums

Recorded December 19th & 20th, 2009 at Firehouse 12

Produced by Mary Halvorson

Co-Produced by Taylor Ho Bynum and Nick Lloyd

Recorded, Mixed, and Mastered by Nick Lloyd

Graphic Design by Megan Craig

Drawing by Craig Halvorson


One of the things that make Mary Halvorson’s music so distinctive is the sense of flux which ensures that every release under the guitarist’s own name seems like a report back from musical territories as yet uncharted.
Making Saturn Sings something of a milestone, as the addition of horns might have had a detrimental effect on the music of her trio, which has already reached a state of almost telepathic understanding. But there’s no reason to fear, as the music is as singular as ever.
Listening to “Mile High Like (No.16),” it’s difficult to imagine how the piece could be played any other way. For all of the singularity of Halvorson’s instrumental conception, her fellow players have a knack for deeply enriching the music; Jonathan Finlayson’s stately trumpet backs sounds as if it’s the only logical alternative to becoming involved in the rhythmic stew fomented by Halvorson, bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith.
Halvorson, Hébert and Smith comprised the trio on 2008’s Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12), so it’s clear where that telepathy comes from. Happily, the slickness often born of such longstanding associations isn’t evident here, a characteristic apparent on “Sea Seizure (No.19),” where the music assumes a polyrhythmic edge through the simple expedient of the three players working in different rhythms. What might have been a mess retains a coherence rendered only more extraordinary by Halvorson’s string manipulations.

By the by, the numbers attached to each composition refer to the order in which Halvorson composed them. This has the practical effect of allowing her to realize how she’s developing as a composer. Her playing, however, might not be so amenable to such a straightforward practice, because she’s already working such a personal seam. On “Right Size Too Little (No.12),” her aptitude for deconstruction is apparent. As is so often the case, her tone is legitimately clean, which throws the spotlight on the degree to which she’s constructively taking things apart. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the program, the music is informed by nuance, the slightest inference on the part of one player being the object of stimulus for the others.
So it might be the case that conception is the key when it comes to Mary Halvorson’s music. If so, then it’s important to emphasize that the notion doesn’t preclude warmth or indeed the staple of creative improvised music that is spontaneity. Both of these qualities are here in abundance and the consequent balance is as finely struck as anything out there.

Nic Jones (All About Jazz)