Rehearsal is overrated.
As proof, I offer Exhibit A: Super 8, the debut album from Secret Keepers, a duo featuring bassist Stephan Crump and guitarist Mary Halvorson. Both musicians are rising forces in New York City's free jazz scene.
Crump has performed or recorded with a staggering variety of acts, from jazz heavyweights like Dave Liebman and Bobby Previte, to Michael McDonald and Ashford and Simpson, to Portishead's Dave McDonald and Violent Femmes' Gordon Gano, not to mention his wife, singer-songwriter Jen Chapin. He's also a respected composer who leads his own band, The Rosetta Trio.
Halvorson studied with groundbreaking avant-garde jazz saxophonist Anthony Braxton, and went on to perform and record with several of Braxton's ensembles. Blessed with great ears and a fearless sense of exploration — in 2011, Village Voice named her New York City's best guitar player — Halvorson has become a respected bandleader and in-demand collaborator, working with folks such as Marc Ribot, Jessica Pavone, Tom Rainey and Taylor Ho Bynum. She's played on about 50 albums in the past 10 years alone.
For Super 8, Crump and Halvorson not only dispensed with rehearsals, but also ditched songs, charts and preconceived structures of any kind. And one more thing: They had never even played together before. In fact, they didn't intend to make a record, per se. But as long as they were in Crump's Brooklyn home recording studio, why not hit record?
Halvorson recently spoke with the Scene by phone before a gig at her alma mater, Wesleyan University in Connecticut. "Stephan and I met through mutual friends," she says. "We knew each other's music, but never got a chance to play. One day we bumped into each other, and it was the classic, 'Oh, we should get together and play!' But we actually did. We felt like we had a really great connection."
On the album's liner notes, Crump offers his own assessment: "At first the interplay felt quite bracing. I remember it feeling like learning how to dance with someone you just met. I was thinking, 'This is crazy. What's happening?' But it turns out the music was strong from the start."
Strong indeed. What you hear on Super 8 is the raw document of Halvorson and Crump's first meeting — no overdubs, no edits. If the terms "improvised music" and "free jazz" typically have you rolling your eyes or running for the exit, this could be the album to make you reconsider. There are no indulgent "look what I can do" blowing sessions or ceaseless cacophonous barrages — just two very sensitive and thoughtful musicians homing in on the moment's razor edge, taking their time, feeling their way, and creating a compelling body of music in the process.
Lead track "Moom Song" opens with Crump bowing sustained notes while Halvorson alternately plucks and arpeggiates three-note chords, some dreamy, some dissonant. The mood is introspective but gradually gets spookier, as Halvorson steps on a delay pedal and Crump puts down the bow — imagine a scene in a Coen Brothers movie wherein the sun is beating down on a hard-luck drifter, silently pondering several courses of action, none of them especially savory.
On "Anti-Time," Halvorson dabbles with pitch-shifting (perhaps twiddling knobs on her delay pedal) while Crump bows his bass. Midway through the track, both players seem to toy with playing in a standard time signature, only to take a sharp left turn just before a groove settles in. It's as if they're teasing listeners who crave repetition and routine, darting in and out of your grasp like a particularly pesky and elusive fly. (Don't take it personally — this album isn't about you.)
"Night Light," perhaps my favorite cut, likewise toys with repetitive motifs and time signatures as it begins. It also exemplifies what I find most appealing about Halvorson's playing: There are clear nods to traditional harmonies and patterns mixed with plenty of dissonance, but most importantly, you really never know where she's going next.
As I listened to the album all the way through, I couldn't help but think, "This is a soundtrack in search of a film." That could be one reason for the album's title, though the liner notes suggest it's more an homage to the intimacy of old-school home movies.
Secret Keepers' performance Friday, May 10, is part of Zeitgeist's fabulous Indeterminacies series, and provides the perfect reason to check out the gallery's new space at 516 Hagan St., Suite 100. The show also coincides with the opening of Greg Pond's multimedia exhibit I'd Leave the Whole World.
And the next night, Saturday, May 11, avant-garde jazz piano legend Matthew Shipp brings his trio to VFW Post 1970. (See Critics' Picks on p. 23.) This could well be the greatest weekend ever for Nashville's free jazz fans.