AMN Reviews: Mary Halvorson Quartet – Paimon: The Book Of Angels Volume 32 (2017; Tzadik)

John Zorn’s Book of Angels consists of 300 pieces and has been released on 32 albums over the last 12 years. This offering is supposed to be the final of the series, featuring the last 10 unrecorded compositions. Aside from its status as a conclusion of sorts, Paimon is also of note for Zorn’s choice of performers: guitarist Mary Halvorson with her longtime collaborator Tomas Fujiwara on drums, veteran Drew Gress on bass, and another well-respected guitarist, Miles Okazaki.

The juxtaposition of Zorn’s klezmer-based circular melodies and Middle-Eastern twang with Halvorson’s note bending is the highlight of the album. Zorn’s writing develops the main themes of each piece, but Halvorson and the group work within these loose confines, not afraid to step out from time to time. In particular, Halvorson and Okazaki engage in an interplay, whether doubling one another’s lines, trading off lead and rhythm roles, or ripping through contrapuntal motifs. They focus on acoustic and un-distorted electric gear, given the album a lightness that belies its dense structure. Gress and Fujiwara both contribute in their well-established and understated manners. Fujiwara in particular fits in so well that he is easy to ignore, though once you pay close attention to his playing, you will realize how much he carries the album’s twisted rhythms.

Paimon covers a breadth of space while maintaining a consistent feel and approach. It is neither truly klezmer nor jazz. While steeped in traditional styles, it is not a conservative album. Halvorson and company tease going outside, but never approach actual free improvisation. The album is an exercise in the familiar and the strange, and for that reason alone it is more than worth your time.