Jazz Notes: Guitarist Mary Halvorson Is the Avant-Leaning Artist for the New Generation
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, July 7, 2017
Mary Halvorson has been heralded as the next “new” guitarist who has been captivating listeners for the last decade, whether it’s sitting in (i.e., joining Marc Ribot’s band the Young Philadelphians) or recording albums ranging from solo to last year’s Away With You with her octet that includes a pedal steel guitarist. She’s an avid, albeit avant-leaning, artist for the new generation of jazz aficionados pining for something new.
Case in point: the DownBeat Critics Poll in its 65-year history, an unexpected surprise was Halvorson being honored with the Best Guitar award, outpacing perennial six-string victors such as Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and John Scofield. She’s also recognized in the Rising Star rankings in three categories: Jazz Artist, Jazz Group and Composer.
In the past few years, the 36-year-old Massachusetts-born, Brooklyn-based Halvorson has slowly but consistently been heralded as the next important guitarist with a new voice—a strong string attack, a very dry sound, an open crunch with shape experiments, a luscious lyricism and a keen attention to the acoustic element of the guitar even though she’s amplified and using effects. She has been captivating listeners through side duties with top guitarists—Frisell, Joe Morris, Nels Cine, Miles Okazaki, Liberty Ellman, Brandon Seabrookand—recording ear-opening recordings as a leader, ranging from her invigorating 2015 beautiful-to-thrashing solo workout Meltframe to last year’s uniquely angular octet that includes a pedal steel guitarist (both on the indie label Firehouse 12).
“It’s insane,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’m the best guitarist, but it is an honor. When I became a musician and started playing the kind of music that I do, I had very low expectations for getting any kind of people listening to it and enjoying it. I went into this thinking, I believe in this and I really enjoy doing it, so I’m going to keep working on it. I did not do it with hopes for success. But when things like this happens, it blows my mind. I appreciate it. For me, it’s a chance for having my music be heard more than I would have hoped for.”
The creative process of composing for her variety of groups, Halvorson improvises on her guitar until she finds intriguing ideas. “It may be a melody fragment or chord changes or a bass line or rhythmic idea,” she says. “I expand on it like a train of thought, filling in parts and revising and moving things around.”
She seeks out unique architectural forms, eschewing the head-free-return-to-head structure or having a person solo with the rhythm section. “There are a few moments of collective improvisation with solos that don’t have a structure or with some structure,” she said. “I come up with structures that work best for the song.”
Halvorson didn’t plan to record an octet album for her Away With You project, but she expanded the ensemble after she was introduced to an instrument that she had no history with: pedal steel guitar. “I began to work with Susan Alcorn who hipped me to pedal steel guitarists,” she said. “You don’t hear that sound so much in jazz, so when I heard Susan, I discovered how much she can bring to improvised music. In whatever context she plays—her ear and ability to improvise and the sounds she plays on the pedal steel—it always blows me away. I knew I had to add her to the group. I didn’t know how to write for pedal steel, but she showed me how it works, how it’s not tuned to standard tuning, how you have knee levers and the foot pedal.”
Halvorson also discovered the range of the pedal steel, lower than an upright bass and higher than a trumpet. “It can fit in anywhere,” she said. “She can play chords with me like two guitars, or harmonize with the horns in a high resister or double bass lines. That made her the glue for the band and I composed accordingly. The new music I’m composing for the Vanguard is taking the group to the next level. The writing is dense, and then there are the moments when the music opens up.”
While the octet has been Halvorson’s focus, she has a rich history if mixing it up in any setting. Her solo album Meltframe comprising covers of her favorite music is a revelation of her prowess as an unpredictable guitarist. “I always said that I wouldn’t record a solo album because I didn’t think I’d have any ideas related to solo improvising,” she said. “But since I play standards as a part of my practice routine, I realized that I could do my own arrangements of tunes I loved.”
One tune she covered was “Cheshire Hotel” by another contemporary, French guitarist Noël Akchoté. “It was song on a Sam Rivers album that I listened to in college,” she said. “It was a song with a strong melody that stuck in my head.” Akchoté got in touch with her after hearing her rendition, and the pair decided to record a venturesome improv duo concert, Live In Strasbourg, released last fall on Akchoté’s self-named label. She’s performed in many duo settings, ranging from an outing with bassist Stephen Crumb (they’ve recorded two albums on the Intakt label: 2013’s Super Eight and 2015’s Emerge) to her own avant-rock band People with drummer Kevin Shea where she plays songs and sings.
But it’s her collaboration with Ribot on the punk-funk The Young Philadelphians that is perhaps her most challenging spree into fun time (documented on last year’s Yellowbird Records’ The Young Philadelphians: Live In Tokyo) with the music a mix of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and ‘70s Philly soul with bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, drummer G. Calvin Weston and a three-piece string section. She’s been playing and touring with the band since 2014.
“Marc already had the band, and he asked me to be the second guitarist,” she said. “I thought it would be cool because I figured I was a pretty unlikely candidate to be playing that type of music. But I love it. It’s great to be trying out different things. Marc’s only instructions to me was to play something different than what he was playing. Marc is absolutely one of my favorite guitarists on the planet. I learn so much from him. His idea is to always completely be in the moment which makes for music that is totally unexpected.”
While she says she generally doesn’t think on more than one project in the future, in addition to the new octet music she composed for the Vanguard date, she’s focusing on a new band she’s formed, the quintet Code Girl, where for her first time she’s composed both lyrics and music. To do the singing chores, she’s enlisted experimental New York vocalist Amirtha Kidambi who will be joined by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, the rhythm section of the shape-shifting Thumbscrew collective that Halvorson is a member of. “I enjoy music with vocals,” she says. “I wrote songs with the lyrics first and then the music by singing the words and playing the guitar.”
While she composed widely in 2017, this year she says she’s focusing less on writing and more on learning more on the guitar—not for awards but for her own creative sensibility.
This contains content from a previously published ‘DownBeat’ feature on Halvorson.
Cover: Mary Halvorson, guitar; photo: Jacob Blickenstaff