Sifter Review on Free Jazz Collective blog by Tom Burris
By Tom Burris
Mary Halvorson is involved in so many side projects it's hard to pick a favorite – until now. Sifter, her trio with Kirk Knuffke (cornet) and Matt Wilson (drums), has created one of the most inviting discs of the year with its self-titled debut. The compositions are concise. The themes are hummable. The solos never venture too far from home, and yet conversely it's a highly adventurous recording.
The album opens with a country shuffle (“Cramps”) that features the main theme played in unison by Halvorson and Knuffke, a common setup for the heads throughout the disc. Halvorson plays single notes on the bass strings until the distortion pedal stomps on the proceedings like Pappy's unruly grandson barged into the room and tried to wrestle the guitar out of Aunt Mary's hands. Unfazed, Wilson's brushes shuffle onto the finish line.
“Dainty Rubbish” opens with a strong melody from Knuffke, accompanied by Halvorson's unmistakeable riffing on a two chord vamp. Wilson plays with the snare off, tapping out a minimal chug Mick Fleetwood would be proud to claim. Interestingly, Wilson gets even more minimal on the next track, “Always Start,” where his playing becomes so understated he sounds like a Moe Tucker disciple. His perfectly sublime pulse compliments Knuffke's unwinding broken blooze lines and Halvorson's seriously warped chordal smears so that the track comes off sounding like honor students about to become dropouts.
“Absent Across Skies” features gorgeous melancholy lines from Knuffke as Wilson's brushes, once again, are beautifully understated accompaniment. I finally missed having a bass line around, but it only lasted for about twelve bars. Mary's riffing and warping, so good it distracts from Knuffke's brilliant melodic lines, rides on top of Wilson's perfect pulse waves on “Original Blimp” with such humor it will make you laugh out loud. I promise!
Echoes of Tropicalia open the breezy “Doughy” with a beautifully understated melody from Knuffke and sweet, full Brazilian chords from Halvorson. When she takes a tremelo-laden solo, the bass-less space underneath provides the perfect canvas. This minimalistic approach is warm and very approachable, as on “Proper Motion,” when Wilson plays time on two cymbals for almost one minute with no other audible sound within earshot. It draws you in like a secret.
Wilson is an ace improviser, knowing when to merely keep time and knowing when to astound by cutting loose, as on “Free Jazz Economics,” where his skills reveal him to be as equally gifted technically as he is intuitively.
This album is loaded with surprises, as on “Back and Forth,” where the main theme goes up and down and Knuffke plays in and out. “Forever Runs Slow In Cold Water” features Sonic Youth-esque crescendos and chord progressions. “Vapor Rub” features Knuffke and Halvorson in a short duet that appears to be completely improvised; and a robot rock stomper called “Utility Belt” closes the disc in dramatic fashion. Above all, this disc is Fun. It contains a track called “Don Knotts”. This band is called Sifter. They have just released one of the best albums of the year.