Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Before & After with Guitarist Mary Halvorson

Six strings, infinite possibilities

Mary Halvorson
Mary Halvorson (photo: Hilary McHone)

Since her breakthrough outing as a leader, 2008’s provocative and scintillating Dragon’s Head, guitarist-composer Mary Halvorson has been something of a critical darling on the new-music scene. Her singular vocabulary incorporates spiky pointillism, deftly fingerpicked arpeggios and a string-skipping technique that can evoke Johnny Smith or Pat Martino in its aggressive yet clean execution. She embraces dissonance with dark-hued chordal work on her hollowbody Guild jazzbox, and shows a predilection for nasty distortion-laced interludes. But the most distinctive tool in Halvorson’s arsenal is her clever use of a volume pedal in combination with a Line 6 delay unit, to achieve the liquid, whammy-bar-type articulations that have become her trademark and have imbued her improvisations with a remarkably unpredictable quality. Not since James “Blood” Ulmer has there been such a refreshingly original voice on the instrument.

Her distinctive playing can be heard in a bevy of cutting-edge bands, including the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet, Joe Morris’ Lava Bat, Ches Smith’s These Arches, Tom Rainey’s trio, Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant, Mike Pride’s trio, Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up, Ingrid Laubrock’s Anti-House, Curtis Hasselbring’s Decoupage and Marc Ribot’s Sun Ship. She is a member of the collectives the Thirteenth Assembly (with cornetist Bynum, violist Jessica Pavone and drummer Fujiwara), Aych (with alto saxophonist Jim Hobbs and Bynum), MAP (with drummer Tatsuya Nakatani and bassist Reuben Radding), Crackleknob (with Radding and trumpeter Nate Wooley), People (with bassist Kyle Forester and drummer Kevin Shea) and Thumbscrew (with Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek). A protégé of Anthony Braxton, whom she studied with at Wesleyan University, Halvorson has performed and recorded with Braxton’s Diamond Curtain Wall Trio as well as his 7tet and 12[+1]tet. A photo of Braxton adorns the refrigerator in the kitchen of her cozy apartment in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn.

Start Your Free Trial to Continue Reading

Become a JazzTimes member to explore our complete archive of interviews, profiles, columns, and reviews written by music's best journalists and critics.
Originally Published