The Gig: Mary Halvorson

Home alone

Simple addition has so far defined the arc of Mary Halvorson’s solo career. Handily one of the most unmistakable guitarists to emerge within the last decade of improvised music, she made her breakthrough six years ago with a stark and scintillating trio album, Dragon’s Head, on Firehouse 12 Records. Subsequent work on the same label has incrementally expanded her canvas: to a quintet, on albums from 2010 and 2012, and a septet, on last year’s superb Illusionary Sea. When I saw the septet in action at this year’s Winter Jazzfest, its chamberlike sweep seemed to confirm my grasp of Halvorson’s creative direction: toward greater orchestration, layered interaction, a strategic marshaling of forces. So I was caught slightly off-guard by the completeness and intensity of a solo performance one night this spring, featuring nothing more than Halvorson, a few effects pedals and her trademark hollowbody Guild guitar.

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Greg Aiello

Mary Halvorson at Undead Jazzfest 2010

The occasion was an opening set at the Greenwich Village club Le Poisson Rouge, preceding the album-release show for Macroscope, the latest by the Nels Cline Singers. The room was packed, and I’d venture that some in the crowd, though clearly enamored of Cline and his expansive guitar wizardry, had never before encountered Halvorson or her music. She took the stage with an awkward disclaimer, dryly noting that she’d just returned from Europe and was functioning from within a fog. But as she sat down and began her set, with an almost classical composure, the air around her grew very still and clear, and so did the atmosphere in the club.

Her opening tune was “Sadness,” by Ornette Coleman, and she quickly set her own terms of engagement with it: sharp, emphatic attack; sparse, deliberative phrasing; a judicious yet jarring pitch-wobble at the tail end of a note, or sometimes the beginning. The general effect, flinty and abstruse, was in keeping with her established style—but the exposure of this setting brought an extra oomph, intensifying the music’s gawky elegance and giving it the lonesome integrity of outsider art. This impression held through the remainder of the set, which consisted entirely of interesting cover tunes: a slinky and unsettled “Ida Lupino,” by Carla Bley; a tersely melancholy “Blood,” by Annette Peacock; “Platform,” by bassist Chris Lightcap, rendered partly in gnarly power chords; Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear,” recast as a janky saloon song. Halvorson varied her approach with each piece, moving along the axis from delicate fingerpicking to furious strumming. She never sounded at a loss for ideas, and her careful sense of pacing kept the set from slipping into sameness.

It seemed obvious that solo playing wasn’t just some offhanded new pursuit for Halvorson, though she later told me it was only her third performance in the format. “I’ve been working on it for a couple of years,” she said by phone from her Brooklyn apartment, on the eve of a monthlong European jaunt that would include dates with the multireedist and composer Anthony Braxton, the cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum and the collective trio Thumbscrew. “For years I was really resistant to it, and I think that’s because I didn’t have any concept. Then I started coming up with these solo renditions of standards, and working out a concept. I thought about composing, but I didn’t feel any inspiration to write for solo guitar. And I didn’t want to do an all-improvised thing either. So the concept was just songs that I really like.”

Sparseness is hardly a brand-new proposition for Halvorson, of course. She has worked extensively in a duo with violinist Jessica Pavone: They released their fourth and most satisfying album, Departure of Reason, on Thirsty Ear in 2011. But the wealth of possibilities available to Halvorson and Pavone—intuitive counterpoint, prickly call and response, chamber miniatures, even a sort of tandem folksinging—tends to radically reduce when one partner is removed from the conversation. (This is also true of the other tête-a-têtes in Halvorson’s portfolio, notably Secret Keeper, with bassist Stephan Crump, which released a fine album called Super 8 on Intakt last year.) Halvorson further circumscribes her sonic options by focusing on the instrument at hand; she isn’t inclined to build slyly recursive loops, like Bill Frisell, or elaborate striations of noise, like Cline. “I never practice with an amp, and I never practice with any effects,” she explained. “The base of it all is acoustic. I would like to think I could do a show with no amp. Any effects I use are just ornamentation, to give the set more variety.”

The only point of reference that easily came to mind during Halvorson’s performance—maybe a bit too easily, at least during her minor-key elaborations on “Blood”—was the brilliant solo work of Marc Ribot. When I asked her to name some influences in the solo format, Ribot was the first person she mentioned, followed by Joe Morris, a former teacher, and Bill Orcutt, a guru in certain noise-rock circles. After a long pause, she enthusiastically added a contemporary, Brandon Seabrook, to the list. “He’s recently been doing a solo guitar thing which is pretty incredible,” she said, referring to Seabrook’s debut, Sylphid Vitalizers, an album of demonic super-intensity, about as far from Halvorson’s naturalist-surrealist vibe as you can get.

Still, there’s a vital, uncompromising quality that Seabrook and Halvorson have in common, which is one reason they’ve both garnered praise from beyond the jazz constituency. This July, Halvorson will spend a week touring as a solo opener for Buzz Osborne, founder and frontman of the pioneering proto-grunge band the Melvins. (It seems likely that those audiences will know even less about her than the one at Le Poisson Rouge.) And there are plans to record a solo guitar album in November, for future release on Firehouse 12. Watch for that album, because it seems sure to represent another bold expansion for Halvorson, under the clever guise of constriction.

Originally published in August 2014

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