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Mary Halvorson: Reinventing the Identity of the Jazz Guitarist

Matthew Kassel profiles the innovative and prolific guitarist

Mary Halvorson (photo by Amy Touchette)
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).

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Originally Published

Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.