Mary Halvorson: Reinventing the Identity of the Jazz Guitarist

Matthew Kassel profiles the innovative and prolific guitarist

Mary Halvorson (photo by Amy Touchette)

On a recent evening at Jazz Standard in Manhattan, Mary Halvorson was hunched over her large hollowbody guitar, unleashing some alien sounds. Though her instrument—a Guild Artist Award—sat imposingly in her lap, she wielded it like a toy, strumming with spasmodic energy, plucking jagged phrases, and using pedal effects to create thick distortion and, at points, vaguely extraterrestrial noises. Halvorson, who is 37, sat in deep concentration, partly hidden by the music stand before her, making serious mischief.

It was her first appearance at the Standard as a leader, and she was playing with her new group, Code Girl, which features the experimental vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, who sings Halvorson’s original lyrics. Kidambi is the kind of singer who uses her voice like an instrument. Her incantatory style, a kind of emphatic Sprechstimme, was an eerie complement to Halvorson, who was also accompanied by Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Michael Formanek on bass and Adam O’Farrill on trumpet (filling in for Ambrose Akinmusire).

The group played a series of potent songs, evoking psychedelia, spaghetti westerns, flamenco and mildly abrasive noise-rock. It wasn’t the kind of stuff you’d expect to hear inside the plush red walls of the Standard, where audience members sip bourbon and nibble politely on barbecued ribs and smoked chicken. But Halvorson is the kind of musician who defies convention, at ease performing with some of the most progressive figures in current jazz as well as those who run stylistically adjacent to the music, like the drummer Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, the guitarist Nels Cline and the bassist Trevor Dunn.

Just last summer, Halvorson headlined her first performance at the Village Vanguard in the West Village. In the jazz world, leading a show at the Vanguard is a sign that you’ve arrived. And for Halvorson in particular, it was an indication, since borne out even further, of how she has slyly insinuated her punk spirit into jazz’s main artery.

Halvorson has, over the past 10 years, released a steady stream of fiercely individual albums, beginning in 2008 with Dragon’s Head, a trio record featuring the drummer Ches Smith and the bassist John Hébert, on the Firehouse 12 label. Halvorson’s rough, dry attack, with virtually no reverb, was a refreshingly appealing extension of the jazz guitar tradition, in large part because it seemed to have few antecedents aside, perhaps, from Marc Ribot, a collaborator, and maybe the late Derek Bailey. “She seemed to know not only who she was as a musician,” the critic Nate Chinen writes of Halvorson in his illuminating new book, Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century, “but also precisely where she was headed.”

Since Dragon’s Head, Halvorson has put her name on six more albums, including two with a quintet, one with a septet, one solo and one with an octet. On top of that, she plays in a dizzying array of groups whose members often overlap. Those include Thumbscrew, a collective with Fujiwara and Formanek; the Hook Up, Fujiwara’s band; and Ensemble Kolossus, Formanek’s jazz orchestra. “She can almost act as a conceptual hub,” says the cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, a frequent bandmate of Halvorson’s, who describes her strange guitar style as something like “Jim Hall on acid.”

Though Halvorson is often categorized as a jazz guitarist, she is somewhat ambivalent about the description; she even went through a period, not too long ago, when she disliked jazz guitar, though the feeling has passed. “The jazz thing was more of an accident,” she told me over coffee on a spring afternoon in Manhattan. Halvorson, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., began her musical education on the violin, gravitating to the guitar after she’d heard Jimi Hendrix. She wanted to be a rock musician, which helps explain her affinity for shredding. Her first teacher, though, was a jazz buff, so she switched her direction.

Still, she never felt as though she’d have to think of herself as a jazz musician per se, because the instrument she’d chosen was, for her, a kind of neutral vessel. “The cool thing about the guitar is it’s not associated as much with a particular genre,” Halvorson tells me. “Whereas, if you think saxophone you’re most likely going to think jazz—even though there is saxophone in other genres. But with guitar, it could be classical, it could be rock and roll, it could be jazz, it could be folk.”

You can hear all of those elements in Halvorson’s music. But the process of finding her sound was a little more involved than mixing and matching different genres. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, Halvorson found herself under the tutelage of Anthony Braxton, a jazz maverick who speaks in koans and taught her to pursue her own voice with purpose. Around the same time, Halvorson was taking lessons with the avant-garde guitarist Joe Morris, who encouraged her, like Braxton, to be herself. “They gave me the confidence to experiment,” Halvorson recalls. “In hindsight it seems obvious, but at the time, it was actually, like, very important. It’s interesting. When you’re that age—I was probably 18 or 19 when I met Anthony—these things have such a big impact. You’re so impressionable. So I think having someone tell me, ‘You can do whatever the fuck you want’—those weren’t his words, but it was the message.”

*****

Hallvorson moved to New York in 2002, and quickly established herself as an estimable—and in-demand—bandmate. She found a niche and began playing with the violist Jessica Pavone and the drummer Kevin Shea, among other musicians, expanding and reshaping her circle every year. “The main thing that stood out was, even at that time, she had a real personal voice on her instrument, and a real personal approach,” Fujiwara says. “There was a lot of intent.”

“Intention” is a word Halvorson likes to use when she talks about her music. “If I play something, I really do want it to be on purpose,” she explains. “That’s very important to me.” It’s a quality that comes through both in her live performances, where her strumming arm swings like a hatchet, and on tape. When Halvorson records, she amplifies her strings along with the body of her guitar, so that listeners can hear the strength of her attack as well as its woody echo.

Halvorson appreciates raw, grating sounds—and the appreciation extends beyond instruments. A number of the artists she frequently listens to include singers with somewhat ragged, singular voices: Elliott Smith, Robert Wyatt, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Annette Peacock. Recently, Halvorson says, she’s been fixated on Fiona Apple. Halvorson, who describes her voice as “very rough and unpolished,” had dabbled in singing and songwriting before Code Girl (the name, as it happens, was given to her by Braxton). In college she wrote poems and song lyrics, and earlier in New York, she occasionally sang in assorted groups.

But Halvorson’s new band with Kidambi is her first attempt to present herself as a serious lyricist—and something other than a formidable guitarist-composer. Her songs are by turns abstract, elliptical, ominous and at times seemingly personal. “I have here in my rotation/It is not predictable my mind/Potential to deal a dangerous lie/It is not predictable my mind,” goes the beguiling start of “My Mind I Find in Time,” the first track of Code Girl’s self-titled debut, released in the spring. While some lines may seem autobiographical (“These days I drink less coffee/And have less laughing to do”), Halvorson insists that isn’t the case. “I like the idea,” she says, “that any listener could take their own meaning from it.”

Halvorson intends to keep the project going—and suggested that she may add another singer to the mix, in due time. For the moment, however, she isn’t quite ready to get going in that direction. “I’ve been feeling for the past 16 years,” she tells me, “that I’m just plowing ahead every year—like next project, next project.” Last year, Halvorson took a break from the groups she was leading to clear her head, practice guitar—she makes up her own exercises—and generally reset. “I feel like I’m sort of still in that phase a little,” she says.

Still, Halvorson has a bunch of collaborations in the works. When we met, she had been transcribing solos by Johnny Smith, the late great jazz guitarist, in anticipation of a tribute album with Bill Frisell. She had also recently completed a duo recording with the multi-instrumentalist Robbie Lee. In June, Thumbscrew released two new records, Theirs and Ours, one a collection of covers and the other a collection of originals.

In mid-July, Halvorson will return to the Vanguard as part of Thumbscrew. The show will take place almost exactly one year after her debut, with her octet, at the hallowed club. For those who have followed her protean trajectory, the show is further proof that Halvorson has, in a way, bent the New York jazz scene to her will. Not that she’s getting complacent. “As good as she is, she’s constantly improving,” Bynum, the cornetist, says of Halvorson. “Which is terrifying.”

[Sign up here for the JazzTimes enewsletter with the latest news and stories from the jazz world.]