TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Three years ago, the prolific guitarist Mary Halvorson put out a CD by a seven-piece band. Their follow up is for the same lineup plus one new member. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says much as he liked that previous album, this new arrival really shakes things up.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY HALVORSON OCTET SONG, "AWAY WITH YOU - NO 55")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Guitarist Mary Halvorson's octet sounding like it's playing a last page from the Burt Bacharach songbook. That's the title tune from Halvorson's album "Away With You," where there's a new snap to her music. The catalyst is a musician new to her circle, Susan Alcorn, a leading exponent of the pedal steel guitar in improvised music. Halvorson selflessly gives her all the best lines.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY HALVORSON OCTET SONG, "SPIRIT SPLITTER - NO 54")
WHITEHEAD: Pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn played in country bands in East Texas early on and knows how to listen and blend. Nowadays, she does a lot of free improvising, but she's also played music from all over the map, recording a solo album of Astor Piazzolla tunes.
Alcorn is versatile, and leader Mary Halvorson hears just how to bring her out and lets her style seep into the harmonies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY HALVORSON OCTET SONG, "INKY RIBBONS")
WHITEHEAD: That's Mary Halvorson's "Inky Ribbons." This is hardly the first time pedal steel guitar has been used in jazz. There were other proponents out there. But it rarely gets surrounded by four horns. Halvorson's Octet includes top saxophonist John Irabagon on alto and Ingrid Laubrock on tenor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY HALVORSON OCTET SONG, "THE ABSOLUTE ALMOST")
WHITEHEAD: Guitarist Mary Halvorson likes slippery pitches herself, so a sliding pedal steel makes for a good fit. She already liked to double her guitar sound using electronics, so a kibitzing extra guitar just adds to the fun. Halvorson and Susan Alcorn are six successors to the old country guitar and steel guitar team of Jimmy Bryant Speedy West.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY HALVORSON OCTET SONG, "SAFETY ORANGE - NO 59")
WHITEHEAD: "Away With You" is my new instant favorite among Mary Halvorson records and an excellent place to start if you wanted to know why she's so admired. Her melodic writing and harmony and command of the jazz orchestral palette are richer than ever while she still leaves room for some weirdness. And working with Susan Alcorn on pedal steel has opened up new colors and possibilities for her. As Steve Lacy used to say, the right partner can take you further.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY HALVORSON OCTET SONG, "SWORD BARREL")
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and TONEAudio and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Away With You," the new album by the Mary Halvorson Octet on the Firehouse 12 label. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with Carrie Fisher, Trevor Noah and Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote and directed the new film "Manchester By The Sea," check out our podcast, where you'll find those and other interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Mooj Zadie. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.