As a student of Anthony Braxton -- a composer who presents evening-length solo performances as well as pieces for 100 tubas -- guitarist Mary Halvorson learned the value of writing for groups of all sizes. She started recording bands as a leader in 2008, with the trio album Dragon's Head. The spiky quality of her playing on that release -- you can hear it on the track "Scant Frame" -- brought Halvorson a new level of attention.
On the follow-up, she wasted no time developing her language further. By adding sax and trumpet to the core band, she expanded her ensemble to a quintet for the albums Saturn Sings and Bending Bridges. Her quintet compositions, such as "Mile High Like" and "Hemorrhaging Smiles," often have a charming melodic quality, even when the improvisations reach white-hot levels of intensity. (And Halvorson still occasionally sneaks in power trio tunes like the indie rock-ish "Sea Seizure.")
In 2013, the guitarist expanded again (with trombone and an additional sax) to a septet. Illusionary Sea is the result: an album packed with idiosyncratic harmonies (seek out "Smiles of Great Men"), noise-drenched guitar ("Four Pages of Robots") and crisp rhythmic attack ("Butterfly Orbit"). Click on the playlist to take a 15-tune tour through Halvorson's challenging and rewarding world of sound, drawn from the four studio albums by groups led by Halvorson.