Mary Halvorson Pushes Jazz Guitar Into New Territory


On July 18, guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson will bring her octet to the Village Vanguard for six nights: twelve performances, two sets a night. It’s a major showcase that will give Halvorson and her band the chance to refine material from their remarkable 2016 album, Away With You, perform new work, and possibly bring themselves into wider view — a “mainstreaming gig,” as one acquaintance put it. This past April, when I sat down with her at a coffee shop in Gowanus, Halvorson had a simpler task in mind. “If you want to reach me, can you just text?” she asked. “If you email, I’m not going to see it. I’m practicing.” When I asked what that entailed, she said, “Playing every day. That’s what I am trying to do this year, get better at the guitar. I want to be able to actualize anything I hear in my head.”

That is the champion’s grind, the extra laps for somebody already seeded a full minute ahead of the pack. Halvorson is 36 and has been releasing records and playing in a clutch of formations since 2002, solidifying and advancing the role of the guitar in her field. That field is probably jazz, if that is how we are going to keep referring to a blend of composition and improvisation. “Jazz is an unavoidable descriptor,” Halvorson says. “I’m not sure there’s a better word.”

Now a resident of Fort Greene, Halvorson grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan, she studied with Anthony Braxton and took private lessons with Joe Morris, which explains part of her tangy, bright-eyed aesthetic. There is some of Morris’s sharp edge in the burnt monophony of Halvorson’s guitar playing, though Morris is more likely to stick with improvisers. Braxton’s combination of the cerebral and the spontaneous is central to Halvorson’s work, though her bands tumble and bray less than those Braxton leads. In an email, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn put it this way: “Music and mathematics have always been close cousins, as in Bach, and I definitely hear the interplay of the two in Mary’s compositions.”

In person, she transmits a sense of quiet dedication to a single purpose. She looks at you as if there is something else she is supposed to be doing but she will wait a reasonable amount of time for you to make your point. That combination of tact and attentiveness suits someone who has done bookkeeping to pay the rent. (She lives now on the income from her music.)

What comes out of her process is only occasionally about tact, though it is almost always about grace. The tone of her electric hollow-body Guild is relentlessly clean, even when distorted or thrown into wobbles by the application of a pitch bend. There are loose antecedents in the playing of Morris and the late Bern Nix: notes individuated, cut, unblurred. The dedication to rendering ideas clearly also goes deep into her writing and the feel of her larger ensembles.

Away With You helped spread Halvorson’s sound beyond her community. Along with her longtime rhythm section, bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith, Halvorson works in a charged triangulation with Alcorn’s pedal steel and a quartet of horns led by tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. The range of the album is bonkers — “Spirit Splitter” feels a bit like a Henry Threadgill horn arrangement as rendered by the Meat Puppets, bright clumps shuffled into life by a band that won’t let the temperature dip below 90. The horn parts speak to a place near jazz while the guitars and drums block out a space that could be independent rock, if broken apart.

“The Absolute Almost” is a glorious chain of events. The track opens with a subdued, three-minute section played by Hébert, Alcorn, and Halvorson. The pedal steel figures glow and swoop out of the silence as Halvorson enters slowly and traces the room with gutterballs, smacking the fretboard with the wind of her strings. Hébert joins the two guitarists with bowed notes and the three play a gorgeous, solemn melody, like a Beefheart instrumental running at half-speed. As the composition grows, the band enters with simple horn and guitar figures pulsing and phasing like Steve Reich’s marimbas. The remainder of the song rides a tone that is both elegant and ferocious, driven by Laubrock’s tenor, concluding with a sweet atomizing of the band, dying down into huffs and rattles.

“One of the things that matters most to me is a sense of purpose,” Halvorson said. “I value the clarity of intention.” The armature of discipline seems to bind her ensembles, allowing them to sink into composed material and emerge with their own voices. (Only about half of Away With You is composed.) If there are any Halvorson tendencies, one is avoiding the full-on, melted scream of free improv. Here, the tone of her guitar is the template for the ensemble, a dedication to clarity. Another is her hand as a bandleader, blending sections and making transitions so natural that pieces with seven parts simply feel like one thought. Skip around on any of her more than two dozen recordings and you’ll notice that any band member can become the focus at any time. Halvorson has concentrated on duos as much as on albums where she is the leader. One of the best is her pairing with guitarist Noël Akchoté, represented by the 2016 album Live in Strasbourg. The duo is a perfect setting for strong voices, an attribute Halvorson returns to when talking about her inspirations. If there is a hierarchy to her writing, it is not something we can hear. The voice is distinct but the mechanics are not.

Halvorson has the faith in everyone’s instrument that she has in her own. The timbre of her work is gently amplified acoustics — her pitch-bending is one of the few electronic interventions you will hear. This doesn’t feel the slightest bit stuffy or traditionalist. The love of a band’s natural weave is integral to Halvorson’s writing. As guitarist Marc Ribot wrote in an email, “She’s not just a great and very skilled guitarist, but an important musical thinker who happens to use guitar.”

As genres like r&b and hip-hop give up the commercial yoke and collapse, happily, into one another, Halvorson’s work becomes more important. If there is a pointless line still dividing rock and jazz, possibly because a band doesn’t have a singer but does have a saxophonist, Halvorson will be one of the people to finally rub that line out. Her work is about the lines that will remain, the dips and the peaks, the unities and the essences driving any band worth its salt.


Mary Halvorson Octet
The Village Vanguard
178 7th Ave South
July 18th- 23rd
8:30pm & 10:30pm