I first came across American violist and violinist Jessica Pavone thanks to her membership of Anthony Braxton’s Septet and 12+1tet. Pavone clearly shares something of Braxton’s questing attitude in the way her music shifts between composition, improvisation and performance. Quite the busy bee, she has a number of different projects on the go including duos and groups with fellow Braxton acolytes Mary Halvorson and Taylor Ho Bynum, a soul group (The Pavones) and a no wave/skronk outfit, Normal Love. The début, self-titled album of her group Army of Strangers (Porter Records PRCD 4052 CD, 2011) is something special though, an album that generates a considerable thrill with its lively rock aesthetic.
There’s a real physicality and presence to these ten shortish instrumental workouts, keeping the listener alert and engaged throughout. It’s also very much a collaborative effort. As composer of the tunes, Pavone is nominally the bandleader, and her viola and violin tumble beautifully through the centres of these songs. But guitarist Pete Fitzpatrick and drummer Harris Eisenstadt are also key to the group’s sound. Fitzpatrick’s clean, ringing guitar lines transform into angsty Neil Young-style riffage, while Pavone saws away with wonderful expressiveness, matching the guitarist note for note. Eisenstadt, meanwhile, anchors the music with his rugged percussion, and there’s sensitive bass work by Jonti Siman as well.
It’s this combination of viola (or violin) and electric guitar in the service of some fairly intense rock music that makes the album so unusual and interesting, in my view. The viola and the violin are hardly standard rock instruments, after all. There was John Cale on the first two Velvet Underground albums, of course; but Cale was basically a drone merchant, offsetting his durational tones against Lou Reed’s twisted dream pop visions. Then there was David Cross in the mid-70s line-up of King Crimson; but Cross’ contributions to Larks’ Tongues in Aspic and Starless and Bible Black have always struck me as particularly weedy when stacked up against Robert Fripp’s miraculous lead guitar. Probably the closest comparison would be with the fine Australian group The Dirty Three, whose Warren Ellis mines a rich seam of melancholy with his angry and swirling violin sounds.
What I find excellent about Army of Strangers compared to the above is the way Pavone’s highly confident playing falls into free and easy conversation with Fitzpatrick’s steely riffing and Eisenstadt’s fluent percussion. The tunes themselves vary between friendly, mid-paced saunters (“A Piece Has Been Released”), raw post-punk skirmishes (“Really?”) and miniature progressive rock epics (“Apparently, I’m Still Bleeding”). In all of them, though, there’s a sense of intuitive interaction between the musicians coupled with a warmth and an openness that seem to invite you to join their army of strangers. Listen in.