Short Note: Secret Keeper and Public Beneficiary at Douglass Street Music Collective (6 Sep 2013)

Secret Keeper (Mary Halvorson – guitar, Stephan Crump – bass)

Wow. For some reason, I overlooked this band among guitarist Mary Halvorson‘s many projects until very recently. Earlier this year, Secret Keeper released its first album–Super Eight–a collection of fourteen fully improvised pieces. As the story goes, after meeting with a desire to try out a few pieces together, Halvorson and Crump wanted first to “get things flowing a bit” and tried some open improvisations. The rare outcome of this exercise coalesced into their first album. Now, they are working on composed tunes as the next phase of their collaborative duo. Last night they showcased six of these in vivid fashion at Douglass Street Music Collective before an eager audience.

In cutting edge, post-modern music, we have come to expect musicians to unveil some startling new technique of eliciting sound from their respective instruments that nobody has thought to try before. But since music-making is most often a collaborative enterprise, another path towards creating an original sound may be charted through the forging of new relationships between instruments–a potentially vast frontier with myriad possibilities. Secret Keeper has dived into the latter pool and their discovery is our benefit: rich, sensual, earthy sounds set upon a palate of sound that includes dashes of necessary tension amidst foreboding resonance. Halvorson often favors the lower register of her guitar in this setting, enriching Crump’s bold, crisp, and robust tones, and at times, adding plucky accents that dance like cavernous fire.

Thankfully neither of these musicians feel the need to overplay in the duo setting. Rather, both of these musicians exhibit an amazing level of patience in their ability to open up space and brief moments of deep ambience, almost tricking our ears to hear nonexistent echoes that one would expect in the deep and dark places of the world. These elements were most vibrantly displayed on the fourth piece of the set, “Disproportionate Endings,” but were present throughout.

Secret Keeper is a wonderful blend of avant garde, improvised, original, and profoundly beautiful music, all wrapped up into one.

Public Beneficiary

The second set saw Halvorson and Crump joining a quartet let by Josh Sinton (baritone saxophone, bass clarinet) and Aram Shelton (alto saxophone, clarinet), the latter on an east coast tour from his present home in Oakland, California. The band played six compositions, three by each of the leaders. Far from being an expansion of the previous group, this group had a completely different character and different aims–the pieces delved much more into dissonance, especially with the opening saxophone lines, set upon a buzzing hive of bass and guitar. The first two pieces, “No. 1 for four” and “No. 2 for four” showcased Sinton’s complex compositional style: rather than setting out from the “known” in search of something new, Sinton throws off our blindfolds already deep within “unknown” territory. He has a universe all his own that he relates to us in music: vibrant, varied landscapes of beauty, anger, and sorrow. The second piece took on a mellower feel with both horn players switching to their respective clarinets in nice contrast to the opening brassy, fiery number.

Shelton’s pieces matched the mood, while adding additional elements to the mix. The third piece, titled “Quail Run” began with all four musicians playing in unison, before he sent them hurdling in various directions. Particularly interesting was the interaction between guitar and bass which played out like a display of contact improv dance. The fourth song, an untitled piece, was the freest of the night, featuring the ability of each of the musicians to act and react to each other. The closing piece, written by Shelton, concluded with a greater lyricism than the earlier tunes, the highlight being a trio of soaring alto, fluttering guitar, and barely audible bass that brought the night to a close.

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