In a relatively short time, Mary Halvorson has become one of the most unique guitarists and composers on the vanguard jazz scene. Over some 22 albums, Halvorson has developed an expressive musical strategy that is as idiosyncratic as it is provocative; no genre seems beyond her grasp.
Code Girl is not only the title of this double-length album -- comprising some 14 songs and nearly 90 minutes of music -- but also the name of a new quintet that includes bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara from her Thumbscrew trio, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and vocalist/bandleader Amirtha Kidambi (Elder Ones). Halvorson penned all the words and music in tunes that, often enough, leave ample room for improvisation. With Kidambi at the center of a swirling unit of sound, the listener will not find, let alone be able to hold on to, the comfort of verse-chorus-bridge architecture. Instead, with Kidambi -- a singer trained in the South Indian Carnatic tradition -- as the focal point, Halvorson capably marries many of her musical interests, from vanguard and straight-ahead jazz to indie rock, improvisation, trad pop balladry, and art song. An idiosyncratic inner timbral and tonal logic lies at the core of her songs, while her lyric meanings are fluid and permeable. "My Mind I Find in Time" is introduced by looped guitar passages that evoke Nigerian hi-life before evolving into an ostinato vamp that recalls King Crimson's "Starless." The languid melody sung by Kidambi is painted with gorgeous counterpoint from Akinmusire. The singer alternates between wordless expression and Halvorson's poetry as the band builds a plank for drama and intensity. Tracks such as "Pretty Mountain" and "Accurate Hit" are mutant pop songs. The former is expanded to near indefinability by Akinmusire's solo, while the latter is a guitar and vocal duet with Halvorson effecting various tonalities via the use of a slide as Kidambi employs her lower range to highlight lyric ambiguities. In longer pieces such as "Storm Cloud" and "The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon," the listener gets a deeper, more comprehensive appreciation for the group's exploratory sonic approach. Rock is never far away, but there is also substantial room for harmonic excavation and jazz cadences. Both tunes commence with almost conventional melodies before the interplay between vocals and frontline players extrapolate and expand their margins, morphing them into music heretofore unknown and possibly unimagined. "The Beast" begins as an indie rock waltz before engaging, angular, even speculative post-bop as a vehicle. The instrumental "Thunderhead" commences with a hard bop head before journeying into psychedelia, space age tango, and Gabor Szabo-esque blues that the rhythm section stretches with tempo and time changes. Closer "Drop the Needle" flirts with art-funk, chamber jazz, and tuneful, avant-pop turning back on itself with a mercurial elegance. Code Girl is one of the more provocative recordings of 2018. It recontextualizes musical boundaries into concentrated yet fleeting moments that require attention and care, while creating an immersive listening experience as accessible as it is challenging.