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

Seeing Double: Mary Halvorson Makes Nonesuch Records Debut with Two Albums

The COVID-19 lockdown gave the acclaimed guitarist the opportunity to bring some long-held compositional dreams to fruition at last

Mary Halvorson (Photo: Michael Wilson)
Mary Halvorson (Photo: Michael Wilson)

Be careful what you wish for. 

By the beginning of 2020 guitarist Mary Halvorson, one of the most acclaimed musicians of her generation, was also one of the busiest. Her thoroughly unique playing style—barbed and studded with effects (including her trademark, a squiggly pitch bend that resembles a sonic ricochet)—and compositional approach had placed her in high demand in the experimental jazz community and with audiences. She was moving nonstop, playing tours and festivals with her own bands in addition to working as a sidewoman. Winning the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant” in 2019—guaranteeing her an income of $125,000 a year for five years, with no strings attached— seemed only to intensify the demand.

“I was pretty burnt out,” she recalls. “Through February of 2020, I was just constantly traveling and was kind of griping to myself, ‘Augh, I don’t have time to myself to practice guitar and write music. I just want more time at home.’”

We all know what happened after that.

The global COVID-19 quarantine wasn’t what she had in mind, of course. But Halvorson made the most of it. “She works incredibly hard,” says her friend, Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich. “Any time I talked to her she was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been writing for five hours,’ or ‘I’ve been practicing for six hours,’ this kind of thing.” The music she wrote was the material that has now been released as two albums on Nonesuch Records. 

Amaryllis places Halvorson at the front of a new, eponymous sextet: trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, trombonist Jacob Garchik, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. The Mivos String Quartet, an unconventional chamber ensemble, joins Amaryllis on three of the six tracks, making it Halvorson’s first attempt at music for 10 pieces.

Belladonna, its companion piece, also features the Mivos Quartet. In fact, it features only Mivos and Halvorson (together forming the titular band), playing what amounts to five string quintets. The guitarist improvises against through-composed backdrops as performed by violinists Maya Bennardo and Olivia De Prato, violist Victor Lowrie Tafoya, and cellist Tyler J. Borden. It’s Halvorson’s maiden voyage as a composer for strings, another first.

In short, these are ambitious projects. But Halvorson shrugs off the notion of any sort of creative shift or other grand plan. “It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “But it seemed overwhelming, and I never had the time, and when I did write it never seemed like the right time for that. And then suddenly I was confronted with nothing but time. That’s how it happened.”

Fujiwara, one of her most frequent collaborators, confirms Halvorson’s lack of self-aggrandizement. “She’s a real musician’s musician,” he says. “She’s leading and composing for ensembles, but she’s very much a part of the band. She’s not trying to be out front with a supporting band, having to show everyone that this is ‘mine, mine, mine.’ Not that she’s not a strong leader with very clear ideas, but she wants to be a part of the ensemble and make music that way, with everyone contributing and communicating. That balance is pretty rare, and it’s one reason why her music is so consistently great.”

Mary Halvorson (Photo: Michael Wilson)
Mary Halvorson (Photo: Michael Wilson)

Halvorson was touring Europe with Code Girl, her recent song- and vocals-based project, when the worldwide lockdowns began. The band had played four of its eight planned dates when the others were summarily canceled and they returned from Cadiz, Spain, to New York.

First, she felt a pang of irrational guilt: “It was like I’d willed it to happen,” she says. “I had been wanting more time at home, of course, but I didn’t want that much time at home. And clearly, I didn’t want it to happen that way.”

But the need for a break was real. Taking place in March, the Code Girl tour was Halvorson’s fourth time around Europe in 2020 alone. (She’d done 12 dates in January with drummer Tom Rainey, then two separate February tours with bassist Michael Formanek and guitarist Bill Frisell, respectively.) What’s more, the band had already embarked on a European tour in October 2019, after which they’d recorded their second album. A recharge was in order.

Contra Dieterich’s observation, however, once Halvorson decided to take advantage of the forced retreat, she still had a hard time working. “It was really hard to get anything done! It felt like all the energy was sort of sucked out of the world, and I was feeling down on myself for not being more productive. But then, when I told that to a friend, she said, ‘Well, yeah. That’s because COVID is not an artist residency.’”

Halvorson laughs. “I loved that. It gave me permission to work when I felt like working, and to be depressed when I felt like being depressed, and just go with the energy of the whole thing because it was unprecedented. I still felt unproductive a lot of the time. But the fact is that I got a ton of stuff done, just because there was nothing else to do.”

Well, not nothing. Halvorson also spent a substantial amount of time editing and mixing the Code Girl album, Artlessly Falling (another ambitious affair featuring art-rock legend Robert Wyatt as a guest vocalist), for its October 2020 release. And though there were no gigs in the short term, the entire year’s worth of bookings didn’t get canceled at once; they came in waves as lockdowns stretched ever onward. 

One gig that stayed on the calendar for a while was a weekend in late summer at the short-lived Stone Brooklyn. It seemed like a good opportunity to try something new; that’s when she conceived the new (and then unnamed) Amaryllis sextet. 

“I wasn’t sure that the gig was going to get canceled, so I wrote all the music for it. And then the gig got canceled,” she says. “But through the process of writing the music, I realized how excited I was about the group. So it became the thing that kept me going during COVID, thinking about the group and writing new music for it, even though I didn’t really know when it was gonna happen.”

In the meantime, Halvorson had resurfaced her long-cherished wish to write for a string quartet. She was an admirer of the Mivos Quartet and their focus on living, emergent composers across a broad stylistic spectrum; she began writing works for quartet plus electric guitar, with Mivos in mind.

Now that she was working on developing both ideas at the same time, she thought it might be fun to combine them. That’s what put Halvorson in what were, for her, uncharted waters.

“You can write a piece for a hundred tubas. You can write a piece for three orchestras on different planets, connected via satellite. Music is creativity, not a prescription.”

Uncharted waters have never, in and of themselves, deterred Halvorson. A protégé of Anthony Braxton, with whom she studied at Wesleyan University, she pegs the saxophonist and composer’s fearlessness as her greatest takeaway.

“It was like, hey, you can do anything! You can write a piece for a hundred tubas. You can write a piece for three orchestras on different planets, connected via satellite,” she says. “It seems obvious to me now, the notion that you can do what you want: Music is creativity, not a prescription. But it really wasn’t obvious when I was a 19-year-old college student. That really opened things up for me.”

At the same time, she knew what she didn’t know. Her first time writing for strings would require a little guidance. For that, she turned to violist Jessica Pavone, a friend and collaborator of nearly 20 years. (They performed for 10 years, from 2002 to 2012, as a duo.)

“I’ve been writing for strings pretty consistently throughout my entire career,” Pavone says. “Knowing that, Mary took a series of Zoom lessons from me when she was writing the music for Amaryllis and Belladonna. They were more like editing sessions. She was asking, ‘Is this playable? Is this possible?’ She obviously knew 80 to 90 percent of what the music was gonna be; it was more just to have a set of eyes from someone who’s a string player and a composer. But it was also about articulations—bowings, things that are specific to string players.”

“Articulations” refers to the way that an instrumentalist sounds a note, and the resulting timbre—nuances that Halvorson, writing music for improvisers, had previously left to the musicians’ discretion. Pavone taught her about sul tasto (bowing over a string instrument’s fingerboard), ponticello (bowing near the bridge), and spiccato (lightly bouncing the bow on top of the strings), and how those articulations could express certain moods and dynamics.

“The music for Mivos was basically through-composed,” Halvorson explains. “So I wanted to make sure that the information was there and laid out clearly. Jessica really helped with that: just teaching me how to notate in that way, which is not an entirely different approach for me, but different enough that I wanted to approach it in a serious way and not just write in the same way that I would have written for horns, bass and guitar.”

This level of instruction and detail implies that the music offers its players a narrower bandwidth for interpretation—which is partly true. “This is not like in jazz, where it’s ‘Here’s your solo spot, c’mon, let’s hear your voice,’” Pavone says. “We want these four string players to sound like one unit. It’s not about individual expression, it’s about giving them as much information as possible.”

That said, the members of Mivos—all of whom are accomplished improvisers as well as sight-readers—say that Halvorson didn’t stifle them. 

“Occasionally, we might get scores where there’s too much information, to the extent that when we work on it, we’ll take some things out,” says Victor Lowrie Tafoya, the quartet’s violist. “But in Mary’s case, her scores were not overfull of markings. It was really clear: They had enough information to convey her ideas quite well, and then the rest of the finer details we worked out in person.”

The X factor, he adds, was how Halvorson’s guitar (the lone improvising instrument in the Belladonna quintet) would interact. “Mary is extremely creative just with what a guitar can do, so I was very curious what that was going to sound like. When we got to the rehearsals, that was really exciting. There was a lot of cool melodic interplay, a lot of beautiful harmonic work that sat well with the quartet. 

“Mary did a really good job.”

Mary Halvorson (photo: Michael Wilson)
Mary Halvorson (photo: Michael Wilson)

As for Amaryllis, each of its core members had more experience with Halvorson’s music. Among their many collaborations, Fujiwara is a Code Girl alum, as is O’Farrill; Brennan and Garchik have worked with Halvorson in Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus (with Garchik also doing time in Halvorson’s septet); and she and Dunston are both members of drummer Ches Smith’s New Quartet. None of this has made Halvorson’s ideas predictable, of course. But it has instilled a high degree of artistic trust.

“There are just those connections that are forged over time,” Fujiwara explains. “We commit to those connections and gravitate back to them. I trust that Mary’s creative instincts will lead us to something cohesive and exciting.” Importantly, that goes both ways: “Her writing and her leading also put a lot of trust in the musicians she’s choosing to play her music. And so there’s a great give-and-take, where she’s giving you things to work with and specific things to do in the music, but she’s also putting a lot of trust in you to interpret it in a personal way, and to take your moments and make the most of them.”

For example, as opposed to the nuance that she writes into the string scores, “I think she has written two drum parts for me,” Fujiwara says. “Once in a while there’ll be a little written instruction on the chart, like ‘imply half time’ or ‘connect with the guitar or bass.’ But she pretty much leaves me to work out the drum parts. We have this understanding that I’m gonna try stuff out, and if there’s something that needs to change, then we just work through that in rehearsal.”

Dieterich, whom Halvorson tapped to produce both Amaryllis and Belladonna, had a similarly collaborative role (instead of the traditional helming the control room). “This was a situation where my job was basically to listen in advance, get a sense of where she wanted to go with it, and give any feedback on the pieces themselves and the takes. In reality, Mary is the producer of those records. I saw my role as facilitating what she wanted to do.”

“I was feeling down on myself for not being more productive. But then, when I told that to a friend, she said, ‘Well, yeah. That’s because COVID is not an artist residency.’”

While the diptych represents bold new ground for Halvorson, it’s hardly taken over her musical universe. Code Girl—her previous bold new ground, being her first serious attempt to write lyrics (aside from some brief dabbling with Pavone)—finally executed a European tour in November 2021, as well as a few U.S. and Canada dates this year, in (delayed) support of Artlessly Falling. She also features as a sidewoman on four other 2022 releases: March, by Fujiwara’s Triple Double sextet; For the Love of Fire and Water, from a quintet led by pianist Myra Melford; trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Columbia Icefield 2; and the long-awaited third album by bassist Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant (whose second album, 2004’s Sister Phantom Owl Fish, was Halvorson’s second ever recording).

2022 is also the tenth anniversary of Thumbscrew, the collective trio that Halvorson and Fujiwara share with Formanek. They will mark it with a new album, their seventh, in the fall. 

“Ten years is a long time for a collective band, and I feel lucky that we’ve been able to keep it going,” Halvorson says. “It’s been fun. And it’s something that we intend to keep going as long as we can, so it’s a band that’s always composing and recording new records.”

Fujiwara agrees. “We’re able to wear different hats, but when we play, it’s about the three of us at all times. That makes a great working relationship, and that’s a big reason why we’ve been able to keep it together for so long.”

There’s no shortage of outlets, then, for Halvorson’s ideas as a player, composer, and improviser. Still, Amaryllis and Belladonna (for whom she has already written more material) stand as a beacon of how remarkable her accomplishments have been—and how much potential she has yet to realize.

“I think that these two albums are a good demonstration of why Mary has been so celebrated,” Tafoya says. “She totally deserves it. She is super-creative, unique in her musical output on her instrument and her compositions. An awesome creative force.”

One almost hopes she burns herself out again, if this is what her respites produce. 

Mary Halvorson: Reinventing the Identity of the Jazz Guitarist

Before & After with Guitarist Mary Halvorson

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.