For her first solo guitar album, Mary Halvorson originally intended to bring her distinctive fretwork to bear on standards like Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections” and “Ruby, My Dear.” But somewhere along the way she settled on a more impressive set of interpretations that includes pieces by peers like Chris Lightcap, Tomas Fujiwara and Noël Akchoté in conjunction with works by Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman and McCoy Tyner. Throw in a few surprise choices-tunes by Oliver Nelson, Annette Peacock, Carla Bley and Roscoe Mitchell-and the final set list alone should pique curiosity about what her crisp lines and tone-bending punctuation can produce on its own.
It’s easy to evaluate albums made up entirely of other people’s music by comparing the new renditions to the source material. But Halvorson’s approach to her instrument-where the fuzz pedal appears in the most unexpected places, tranquil melodies melt like Dalí’s clocks, rhythms change with no transition-means that Meltframe can be enjoyed with or without prior knowledge of the originals. Her non-jazz side turns up unexpectedly, like in the fuzzed-out garage-rock take on Nelson’s “Cascades,” a riff that transfers seamlessly to the fretboard. Lightcap’s “Platform” briefly turns into vintage Pink Floyd during a breakdown, with a loop that evokes spastic Farfisa organ. Those signature effects pedals also make “Cheshire Hotel” sound as if the recording tape is self-destructing, though normalcy returns quickly with some Sun Records slapback-style echo. But Halvorson also demonstrates lyricism, as on the slow country shuffle in “Ida Lupino” or in “Solitude,” which requires the listener to unearth the melody from a sea of heavy tremolo effect.
Solo instrument albums, especially those made by more left-leaning musicians, often require a bit more patience due to the level of deep introspection that goes into them. Meltframe gets wild, but the energy and focus of Halvorson’s playing never fall away.