ALLMUSIC: Mary Halvorson / Robbie Lee: Seed Triangular

ALLMUSIC: Mary Halvorson / Robbie Lee: Seed Triangular


As individuals, multi-instrumentalist Robbie Lee and guitarist Mary Halvorson have revealed well-developed appetites for experimentation throughout their careers. Lee is a multi-instrumentalist who specializes in saxophones, several kinds of reeds, woodwinds of contemporary and historical vintages. and organ and guitar. He has worked with everyone from Cass McCombs and Josef Van Wissem to Eleanor Friedberger and Neil Hagerty. Halvorson leads her own trio, plays in the Thumbscrew quartet and a duo with Jessica Pavone, and worked in bands led by Taylor Ho Bynum, Marc Ribot, and Susan Alcorn. Seed Triangular is her seventh release of 2018, following a pair of simultaneously issued Thumbscrew records, two duo albums with guitarists Bill Frisell and Joe Morris respectively, as a member of Ingrid Laubrock's quartet (with Nate Wooley and Kris Davis) on Contemporary Chaos Practices, and most notably for her own complex, double-length song project Code Girl. Lee and Halvorson have not recorded together before, but have improvised together and with other ensembles for a decade, developing a respectful, intuitive musical language in the process.

Halvorson gets tested most on Seed Triangular. Used to a large hollow body electric guitar, on these selections she utilizes instruments she's never played before. Lee invited Halvorson into a studio to play whatever he gave her: a 19th century Knutsen 18-string harp guitar -- with six bass strings -- a gut-string 1888 SS Stewart banjo, and a 930 Gibson L-2 acoustic guitar. Lee dug out a few curios of his own as well: antique flutes, a Renaissance clarinet chameau, a melodica, and a soprillo saxophone (the size of a piccolo, it is the smallest and possesses the highest register in the sax family).

The pair improvised live in the studio and Lee edited their best jams into smaller parts, then titled them. Throughout, in 14 remarkably accessible, refreshing short selections, they explore tenets of ancient music, free folk, and jazz, with a little humor tossed into the mix. One highlight is "Seven of Strong," a kinetic piece that consists of overtone-tuned fingerpicked harp guitar and saxophone with each player offering a statement that the other reacts to and furthers before changing direction. "Rock Flowers," on which Halvorson uses the banjo in striated, angular runs in constant fits and starts, is underscored by the extreme high register of Lee's soprillo that soars over the top before Halvorson adds some detuned ragtime strumming and bluegrass licks. "Sing O-Gurgle-Ee This Evening" is a brief flute solo by Lee, lilting and mournful before it goes off the rails, while the closing title track is a sparsely phrased engagement with early American folk forms. Issued by the excellent New Amsterdam label, Seed Triangular is at once provocative and remarkably welcoming. Fans of improvised music will no doubt find much to delight them, but those fascinated by experimental sounds, strange Americana, diverse tonalities, and acoustic music should also be edified.