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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.

The 32-year-old Boston-born guitarist currently leads her own trio with bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith (documented on the aforementioned Dragon’s Head) and quintet with Smith, bassist Stephan Crump, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. She is planning to add two horns to her quintet-tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik-for an upcoming septet recording in September. Halvorson also appears in an explosive trio with trumpeter Peter Evans and drummer Weasel Walter and has an ongoing duet project with Pavone. Another recent collaboration is Secret Keeper, a duet project with Crump (record due out next year). An uncommonly open-minded musician, Halvorson has participated in guitar duets with such disparate stylists as Elliott Sharp, Nels Cline and Vic Juris.

1. Jim Hall

“1953 Thesis” (from Jim Hall and Friends: Live at Town Hall, Volume One, Music Masters). Hall, guitar; Don Thompson, piano, arranger; Steve LaSpina, bass; Terry Clarke, drums; Kermit Moore, cello; Shem Guibbory, Richard Henrickson, violins; Diedra Lawrence, viola. Recorded in 1990.

BEFORE: Well, so far I’m just hearing a string quartet, I think. No guitar. This is beautiful, though. I love string quartets. I’m a big fan of just that sound and all the possibilities you can get from it. I like the arrangement. When the rhythm section came in I totally wasn’t expecting that. It feels very structured and also really loose and free within that, which is nice. I especially like the blend that the guitar and piano get here. I don’t know who this is, but it’s beautiful. This now reminds me of some early Braxton Ghost Trance Music, in a sense-just the rhythmic propulsion of it and the staccato unisons with the strings.

AFTER: It’s Jim Hall? Wow!

This was actually the premiere of a piece he had composed while attending the Cleveland Institute of Music years ago. It was his thesis from 1953.

That’s amazing. The string writing almost reminds me of Shostakovich. It has a little bit of edge and dissonance to it, but it’s still really beautiful harmonic writing. I’m surprised I didn’t get it right away, actually, from his playing-the beautiful tone and choice of notes. Jim Hall is one of my favorite jazz guitarists. The first thing I got of his was one of his duo recordings with Bill Evans, Undercurrent. I’ve since been a big fan of his playing and his music-just a really beautiful sound and really clear and surprising ideas. Total mastery of the instrument. And I love his chord-solo stuff that he does as well. This is something I didn’t know about and wouldn’t have guessed it, but it’s really cool. It must’ve been a great concert.

2. Henry Threadgill Zooid

“A Day Off” (from Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp, Pi). Threadgill, alto saxophone; Liberty Ellman, guitar; Jose Davila, tuba; Christopher Hoffman, cello; Stomu Takeishi, bass guitar; Elliot Humberto Kavee, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: Is this Threadgill’s band with Liberty Ellman? I haven’t heard this yet but I recognize the band immediately. I think Liberty is awesome. I love Liberty’s playing. His band also is incredible. He’s a great arranger and composer. This is Zooid. I heard them live a few weeks ago at the Jazz Gallery and it totally blew me away. I love the energy and propulsion in this music. It’s always going somewhere; it’s always got this really strong intensity and drive. And then when Threadgill comes in, his sound is just so powerful it kind of bowls you over. It’s pretty amazing.

I love Liberty’s tone on the instrument. It’s a really pure, really present sound. I think he’s playing strictly acoustic here with a mic. He’s so fluid and he always sounds like himself. I think he’s instantly recognizable. He’s one of my favorite guitarists doing stuff now. We’re neighbors: I see him around pretty often, although we’ve never actually played together. This is a nice-sounding recording, too; everything’s really clear. The instrumentation of this band is really cool and Threadgill creates such interesting and unusual structures for them. It never sounds meandering, but at the same time it feels like there is so much freedom. And the other thing about it that’s so great is they’ve been playing together for so long. They have such a strong identity as a band, and you can tell there’s so much trust between the musicians. I definitely have to get this.

3. Joe Morris/Nate Wooley

“A Terrific Snag” (Tooth and Nail, Clean Feed). Morris, acoustic guitar; Wooley, trumpet. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: [almost immediately] Joe Morris? I know Joe’s playing better than anybody’s. He sounds like nobody else. I guess it’s a combination of the note choices he makes, the way he plays, his rhythmic logic, his sound. To me, he has such a clear identity as a musician, but he’s a searching musician, too. Is this with Nate Wooley? He’s such an incredible trumpet player. I’ve been able to work with him a little bit as well. He’s a super versatile player. He can fit into so many different contexts and still sound like himself. I don’t think I’ve heard this one.

Joe was my teacher. I studied with him in college. I sought him out because I really loved his playing. When I was going to Wesleyan he lived about a 20-minute drive away, so I would just drive to his house and take lessons. He would never play guitar in the lessons, he would only play bass because he didn’t want me to copy what he was doing. So the whole point of the lesson was “Find your own thing.” To me, that was a very clear message at age 19. He’s definitely one of my most influential teachers. I was studying with Joe at the same time I was studying with Anthony. Between the two of them, it was an eye-opening experience, especially at such an impressionable age. Basically having people tell me, “Do whatever you want, the sky’s the limit.” That was the kind of message I was getting from Joe and Anthony. Last year Joe formed a three-guitar band with me and Chris Cretella-we’re all playing acoustic guitars-and with upright bass and violin. It’s called Lava Bat, which is a play on the name Hot Club. It’s modeled after the Django Reinhardt-Stephane Grappelli Hot Club of France Quintet, but it’s free music. It’s very rhythmic and very driving but all improvised. We’ve done a couple concerts with that group and it’s been really fun. It’s a cool concept, and it’s always great to play with Joe.

4. Ben Monder Trio

“Gemini” (from Dust, Arabesque). Monder, guitar, composer; Ben Street, bass; Jim Black, drums. Recorded in 1996.

BEFORE: Nice intervallic logic on this intro. I love the writing and the use of harmonics and the intervallic stuff. It’s a nice arrangement, too. I like how it goes in and out of time and the rhythm section is really fluid. Wow, and this sudden shift into something else is great. It sounds like Frisell here-I can tell it’s not but this part to me is very Frisell-ian. The other part didn’t sound like Frisell at all. [at beginning of distortion solo] It’s not Ben Monder, is it?

AFTER: I love Ben Monder. He’s such a fluid and technical jazz guitar player, but he has an element of freedom and looseness in what he does that I really like. I thought it might’ve been him all along, but then I recognized the distortion sound, which confirmed my suspicions. Ben takes extreme fluidity on the guitar and translates it into something really interesting, like on this tune. He’s also blending rhythmic elements of rock and jazz in an interesting way here. And Jim Black is the perfect drummer for that situation. I love Ben’s record Oceana, which is amazing. But I’m glad you played this because I haven’t heard it before. This is another one you played that I need to get.

5. David Fiuczynski

“Micro Emperor” (from Planet MicroJam, RareNoise). Fiuczynski, fretless electric guitar; Evan Marien, fretless electric bass; Evgeny Lebedev, piano; David Radley, violin; Kenwood Dennard, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: [following the opening fusillade] Whoa! That sounds completely insane, in a good way. Is the guitar player using a slide? Is that what’s happening here? Are there two guitars on it?

You just raised your eyebrow about two inches.

Yeah. This is crazy. I love it. I have no idea who it is. I love the fretless guitar thing on it. That’s a really unique sound. The writing is pretty crazy too. Sounds like everything’s kind of bending, and not only because of the fretless guitar. The whole thing seems really bendy but at the same time super structured. You can hear all kinds of musical influences in this, but not in a way that seems contrived-in a really organic way.

It’s actually based on a fragment from Beethoven’s 5th concerto.

AFTER: That’s beautiful. I love it. And now I’m hearing that Beethoven reference. It’s really out there, but in the best possible way. I haven’t heard anything like it. Something about it reminds me of Ornette’s Prime Time, especially the energy of it. And it’s a super-tight band. I guess the reason why I have never experimented with microtonal music is because it seems overwhelming to me. I have played with a slide, about 10 years ago. I really love microtonal stuff. I just feel like there are enough things I’m trying to deal with just with the regular 12 tones, so I haven’t had a chance to experiment with it. Not to say I never will, but I’ve got enough on my plate, I think.

6. Elliott Sharp Trio

“The Grip” (from Aggregat, Clean Feed). Sharp, electric guitar; Brad Jones, bass; Ches Smith, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: I like the concept of all this insane stuff happening over the time. I can’t figure out who this is. [at the start of a barrage of two-handed tapping on the fretboard] Oh, it’s Elliott Sharp. Nobody else does that quite like him. He has such a strong identity as a guitar player. This is Ches on drums? Really?! I have heard Ches swinging like this before, but it’s not something he does a lot of. But here it really works.

That was great. I look forward to hearing that whole record. Elliott is amazing. I’m a huge fan. He’s another one who has such a diverse range of stuff he does. This track you played was in the extreme distortion zone, but his large-group stuff is really interesting, too. And I also really enjoyed Elliott’s project where he plays Monk tunes solo [2006’s Sharp? Monk? Sharp! Monk! on Clean Feed]. He’s got a really interesting take on that. We played a couple of duo concerts that were really different concepts. One was with acoustic guitars, which was really cool. And then we did another one that was electric and we had all sorts of effects going on. I remember going down to hear him play at Tonic when I was still at Wesleyan. He’s a really interesting musician and he has an amazing collection of guitars unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And he plays them all beautifully, too.

7. Marzette Watts

“1a” (from Marzette Watts & Company, ESP-Disk’). Watts, tenor saxophone; Byard Lancaster, alto saxophone, flute; Clifford Thornton, trombone; Sonny Sharrock, guitar; Karl Berger, vibes; Henry Grimes, bass; J.C. Moses, drums. Recorded in 1966.

BEFORE: [during Sharrock’s solo] This is really interesting, a very unusual technique and sound. I’m not sure who it is, though.

AFTER: That sounded so different from other Sonny Sharrock I’ve heard. It reminded me of elements of metal guitar, just the way he was picking. I can recognize the same energy in his playing. It’s very percussive, with an interesting use of space, too.

That’s interesting. I would not have identified that as Sonny Sharrock. I’m familiar with his own records like Ask the Ages, which I loved. That’s an incredible record with Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones. That was actually my introduction to Sonny Sharrock. He’s an amazing player, and he sounds so different here. It’s less rhythmic and flowing than some of his later stuff, although it has the same energy and intensity. It’s much more jagged and kind of raw. And that picking technique is something I hadn’t heard him do before. Very cool.

8. The Nels Cline Singers

“Fly Fly” (from The Giant Pin, Cryptogramophone). Cline, guitar; Devin Hoff, contrabass; Scott Amendola, drums. Recorded in 2003.

BEFORE: I love the guitar sound; I love the tone. He’s getting some interesting sounds out of the instrument, and the band is awesome. I can’t place who it is, but it’s on the tip of my tongue. It’s full of great energy and surprising ideas. I wasn’t expecting this sort of grindcore section, either. It’s interesting writing. But the thing you played at the top, I heard that before somewhere.

AFTER: Oh, it’s Nels! I should’ve known that. I think I’ve heard them perform this tune live, which is why it was so familiar to me. But I don’t think I’ve heard this particular recording. Nels is great. He’s another example of somebody who is trying for so much stuff and has such a diversity in what he does. And I love guitar trios that are able to go seamlessly into all these different places and it still holds together and is coherent. The thing that struck me right away is his sound on the instrument. I think the first time I heard Nels live was with Gregg Bendian with the Interstellar Space RevisitedI duet that they did at Tonic, and I’ve been a fan ever since. He’s a really open player. And I love the sound of that Fender Jaguar he plays. I’ve also seen him in Wilco playing six or seven guitars.

None of what you hear on this track comes out in the context of that band.

But he takes these incredibly interesting solos in that band. I think he adds so much to that music. I really like what he does in Wilco. But yes, this is something else. It’s pretty great what he does. I’ve seen him live several times, which is why I think I recognized that song. I’m sure I’ve heard it before.

9. Dom Minasi

“Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” (from I Quick ResponseI, CDM). Minasi, guitar; Mark Whitecage, alto saxophone; Kyle Koehler, organ; John Bollinger, drums. Recorded in 2004.

BEFORE: Cool arrangement. It’s nice to hear versions of things that are so far removed from the original but still retain the essence of the melody in some way. The descending motion that’s happening, to me, is more in front than the melody. I feel like I should know who this is. It’s amazing, listening to all these guitarists, how many guitarists there are out there doing really interesting and unique stuff. He has a very particular approach. Again, it almost has kind of a metal picking thing, although it doesn’t sound like that at all. But he’s got great agility with the right hand, which he’s using to a really interesting effect.

AFTER: I don’t know his playing well. I have heard him live but it was in a much freer context. I haven’t heard much of his music that’s composed like this. I like his super-warped arrangement. Very interesting. Also, it looks like he has a similar guitar to mine from this picture. Mine’s a Guild Artist Award. I love that guitar, and he gets a cool sound out of his. Yeah, it’s a very specific and unique thing that Dom does, at least on the track that you’re playing me. It’s interesting how many things you can do with a pick. You hear people who have a real fluid thing and other people who have a real strong attack, and his is something different entirely.

Originally Published