At WSJ on the great Code Girl recording, Artlessly Falling

Well, better late than never. I liked this piece and love the recording.

‘Artlessly Falling’ by Code Girl Review: Crooning Couplets

Guitarist Mary Halvorson branches out from her hallmark improvisation on an album that melds her poems and musical compositions.

Guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson, who fronts the group Code GirlPHOTO: JAMES WANG

By Martin JohnsonJan. 27, 2021 3:28 pm ET

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In 2018, when guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson released “Code Girl,” the first recording by her group of the same name, it seemed like a departure from the rest of her discography. Ms. Halvorson, an innovative and prolific guitarist, had built a stellar reputation for groups that showcased imaginative compositions and featured some of the top improvisers in jazz. At five members, Code Girl was a smaller outfit than the octet that had become her best-known ensemble, and “Code Girl” focused on songs that fused high-level improvising with experimental rock structures and original lyrics rather than on instrumental solos. Ms. Halvorson’s “Artlessly Falling” (Firehouse 12) is a superb recording by a larger iteration of Code Girl. The music reinforces Ms. Halvorson’s role as a prime mover in jazz and, with her penchant for layered improvisations and unconventional compositions, begins to connect the links between her ensembles.

In addition to the guitarist, this version of Code Girl features three members from the first recording: drummer Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek (who work with her in a collective trio called Thumbscrew) and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi (who is a master of both Western and South Asian styles). There are two new members, saxophonist and vocalist Maria Grand and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, and the recording features a guest appearance by vocalist Robert Wyatt, a pioneering figure of the English art rock scene of the mid-’60s. He is one of Ms. Halvorson’s idols, and she coaxed him out of retirement to sing on the recording. Her lyrics are in specific poetic forms.

Mr. Wyatt’s earthy croon is the first prominent voice on “The Lemon Trees,” the opening track on the 64-minute program. He sings lines Ms. Halvorson wrote in tanka form; its richly evocative description of people spiraling downward was influenced by the Lawrence Osborne novel “Beautiful Animals.” His voice is backed by wispy harmonies from Ms. Grand and Ms. Kidambi and trumpet accents from Mr. O’Farrill, which grow into a lead segment. The trumpeter’s style is a great fit, gruff with a hint of elegant underpinning, and he’s backed by Mr. Fujiwara, a concise percussionist, whose restrained drumming leads back to Mr. Wyatt’s crooning and closes with the other singers’ wordless vocals over Mr. Formanek’s sturdy basslines.

Contributing to the sense that the album’s eight pieces are part of one suite, “Last-Minute Smears,” the following track, begins with bass and blooms into Ms. Kidambi’s gentle rendition of lyrics written in response to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony during his confirmation hearings. There is a downcast, nearly taciturn air to the music, again with overlapping solos.

Ms. Halvorson’s brilliant guitar playing dominates “Walls and Roses.” When she arrived on the jazz scene, she was known for her artful use of feedback and power chords (like many guitarists, she loves Jimi Hendrix and cites saxophone deities like John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy as primary influences), but she also plays slippery glissandos and can summon up the deeply evocative sound of a Bakersfield country band. She brings the full arsenal to this tune in between wistful verses sung initially by Mr. Wyatt and then by Ms. Kidambi.

Ms. Halvorson, Ms. Kidambi and Mr. O’Farrill are featured on “Muzzling Unwashed,” with lyrics in a villanelle style. The track builds into a stunning segment of wordless vocals from Ms. Kidambi backed by furious drumming from Mr. Fujiwara. The second half of the program presents longer pieces with more complex solos and group interplay. The recording closes with the title track, written as a sestina. The band improvises throughout, and Ms. Kidambi’s vocals soar and crest with the backing—but rather than bordering on cacophony, the song is the most sweetly melodic piece on the recording.

Since Code Girl’s first release, Ms. Halvorson has won a MacArthur Fellowship and maintained an unusually busy schedule, appearing on 18 recordings. Some are duets—often with fellow guitarists like John Dieterich (of Deerhoof), Bill Frisell and Joe Morris. And Thumbscrew has released three albums; its recording “The Anthony Braxton Project” (Cuneiform) was one of the best of 2020, and there’s another, “Never Is Enough,” set for release in February. These albums put the focus on her distinctive improvising. “Artlessly Falling” brings her compositional prowess to the fore.

—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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Appeared in the January 28, 2021, print edition as ‘‘Artlessly Falling’: Crooning Couplets.’

About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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