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Tighter and looser with Mary Halvorson

The MacArthur Award-winning guitarist plays in the Tomeka Reid Quartet for two shows on Halloween night at Arts + Literature Lab. (Photo courtesy John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.)

New York-based guitarist Mary Halvorson’s creative output is seemingly inexhaustible. Playing on more than 100 releases since the mid-2000s, Halvorson has solidified a reputation in the national avant-garde jazz scene as one of the most reliable performers and composers—from her early collaborations with legendary woodwind player Anthony Braxton, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, drummer Ches Smith, and violist Jessica Pavone, to more recent band fixtures like Thumbscrew, Code Girl, and her ever-expansive solo-billed unit that began as a trio and has organically blossomed into an octet. In the last five years, Halvorson, along with her longtime drummer Tomas Fujiwara (in the aforementioned Thumbscrew, Thirteenth Assembly, The Hook Up, etc.) have also joined forces with Chicago-based cellist-composer Tomeka Reid and contrabassist Jason Roebke. As the Tomeka Reid Quartet, they recently dropped a sophomore album, Old New, on Cuneiform Records at the beginning of October, which deepens the exhilarating interplay of melody and texture, composition and improvisation that defined their self-titled debut record in 2015.

In special early and late shows (6:30  and 9 p.m.) at Arts + Literature Laboratory on Thursday, October 31, the quartet will be bringing its unmistakable live energy to Madison for the first time, at the peak of festivities on All Hallow’s Eve. Ahead of these shows, Halvorson (who had just been named a 2019 MacArthur Fellow) talked with Tone Madison about her career as a performer, selecting her signature Guild Artist Award archtop model guitar years ago, finding inspiration with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University, the process of arranging the many cover tunes on recent endeavors with the solo guitar record Meltframe and a Johnny Smith tribute with Bill Frisell, as well as future ambitions that include a larger ensemble.

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Tone Madison: I think it’s customary for talk show hosts to ask where you were or what you were doing when you first learned you won a MacArthur Fellowship (and congrats, by the way). But I am seriously interested to know how you responded when you heard or read the news.

Mary Halvorson: I was doing an artist residency with the collective ensemble Thumbscrew in Pittsburgh when I got the call. I can only describe my reaction as complete and total shock. It took me a long time to actually digest the news, and when I finally did, the shock became gratitude. The type of music I play is not easy listening, and to have that kind of endorsement from the MacArthur Foundation truly means a lot. It will allow me the time and space to experiment and create, and possibly to undertake large scale projects which I wouldn’t have had the means to realize before.

Tone Madison: What originally made you gravitate towards the electric guitar (from your first instrument, the violin) and then towards your now-signature, sizable 1970 Guild Artist Award archtop model?

Mary Halvorson: I heard Jimi Hendrix when I was around 11 years old, and that’s what did it. I was immediately drawn to his energy, recklessness, and electricity, and I wanted to play rock and roll. My first guitar was a black and white Fender Stratocaster (à la Jimi)— very different from the hollow body guitars I play now. Once I got into jazz, I became more interested in the sound of archtop guitars. I wanted to be able to hear the wood and the resonance of the instrument. A teacher of mine in college, guitarist Tony Lombardozzi, was the one who recommended the Guild Artist Award. He said, “This the perfect guitar for you.” And he was right. There was one for sale in New Jersey, and I drove there and bought it on the spot.

Tone Madison: What made him say, “This is the perfect guitar for you?” 

Mary Halvorson: I actually have no idea! I should ask him. He knew my playing well and seemed to think this guitar would be great for me. I trusted his intuition and I really did fall in love with that guitar as soon as I played it.

Tone Madison: What is your response to playing jazz or admiration of the genre? Or, as you wrote, the desire to hear the wood and the resonance of the instrument?

Mary Halvorson: I’m not too interested in the debate about what defines jazz today. All I know is that I love jazz, it’s the music I grew up listening to, and it’s a huge influence on what I do. Still, I’m not attached to genre. It’s always possible I will do a future project that will have very little to do with jazz. My interest in hearing the wood and resonance of the instrument comes largely from my love of the upright bass, and in my own way, trying to emulate the strength and beauty of that acoustic sound.

Tone Madison: To my ears and many others in the jazz community and beyond, you have a distinctive and instantly recognizable playing style that feels at once uninhibited and yet incredibly disciplined. I’m thinking of the string-bending, warping unconventional melodic chords and arpeggios into electronic-sounding warbles. But you’ll then juxtapose those improvisational techniques with some of the cleanest and prettiest licks you’ll hear in modern music. I guess I’m specifically thinking of my favorites from your catalog, like “Crescent White Singe (No. 13)” from Saturn Sings or “Butterfly Orbit (No. 32)” from Illusionary Sea. It’s that polarity and tension between each note you play that is so engaging to me.

When did you first start to hone this signature style and approach, and was it developed more through your own practice or through jam sessions with other musicians? How do you think your style has evolved since then?

Mary Halvorson: It’s hard to pinpoint beginnings. Ever since I began studying music, I have been working towards finding my own sound and approach. It’s a lifelong goal, to keep growing and developing as a guitar player, composer, and improviser. For me, this comes through a combination of solo practice and also performing, rehearsing and playing with other musicians. I believe that, as musicians, the way we choose to play has everything to do with our influences—all the music and art we’ve seen and heard throughout our lives; all the thoughts and experiences we’ve had—filtered through our unique lens and further honed by our aesthetic choices. To me, the worst thought is stagnation, and the exciting thing about being a creative musician is the idea of continually growing, developing, challenging oneself to discover something new.

Tone Madison: Was there a major catalyst that pushed you towards fringe and genre-defying music? Maybe something even unrelated to music specifically? It seems like you were instilled with a curiosity early on, and you recorded with the likes of bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Ches Smith around 15 years ago for the Sister Phantom Owl Fish album. And you’re still collaborating with that very trio, as you have an upcoming show in New York with them just a couple days before you perform here in Madison with Tomeka Reid Quartet.

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A promotional graphic for the Mad Lit events series shows the series' logo and text stating (8 p.m. until 11 p.m., Every other Friday, 100 block of state St. July 1st-October 7th. A collage of performers and audience members is visible to the right, and the logos of event sponsors are visible along the bottom.

Mary Halvorson: The person who really opened me up musically, without a doubt, was Anthony Braxton. Anthony was my professor at Wesleyan University, and he was the person who really made me want to be a musician, around age 19. Studying with him was incredibly inspiring. I remember learning “Composition No. 169” in his large ensemble class, early on in my time there. That piece is wonderful—a classic—and I do have fond memories of discovering and learning that one. I realized that music was a much, much larger world than I had previously thought possible. Anthony encouraged me to study and respect musical traditions of all sorts, and at the same time take risks, experiment, and always try new things.

Tone Madison: On this new record with Tomeka Reid (cello), Tomas Fujiwara (drums), and Jason Roebke (contrabass), some of the most engaging and stunning moments happen when you seem to be rhythmically functioning in pairs. On “Niki’s Bop,” for example, Jason and Tomas take the lead with this sort of classically upbeat marching beat and bassline before you and Tomeka come in synchronously with the melody. What I really like about this track is not only how well you’re both intermingling timbres, but how unexpectedly beautiful the sounds of the instruments are playing off one another even as the track gets dicier towards its midpoint and your guitar and cello parts splinter into separate improvisations. How often had you performed live or in studio with an acoustic cellist or violoncellist prior to working with Tomeka?

Mary Halvorson: The first time I collaborated with another string player in a serious way was my duo with violist Jessica Pavone. Jessica was one of the first musicians I met when I moved to New York in 2002, and we became fast friends. We have since recorded four records as a duo [the latest being Departure Of Reason in 2011]. Tomeka I started working with probably around 2013 or 2014. I’d say Jessica and Tomeka are the two string players with whom I have collaborated the most thus far.


The Tomeka Reid Quartet, from left to right: Jason Reobke, Tomas Fujiwara, Halvorson, and Reid. Photo by Jasmine Kwong.

The Tomeka Reid Quartet, from left to right: Jason Reobke, Tomas Fujiwara, Halvorson, and Reid. Photo by Jasmine Kwong.

Tone Madison: When you were rehearsing and recording this record, your second with this particular quartet, what did you find most rewarding or different from the first time around in 2015? Maybe it was something one or all of you newly brought to this set of Tomeka’s compositions.

Mary Halvorson: To me, the most rewarding part of working on the second record was the fact that the four of us have played together so much since the making of the first record. There is always something to be said of the rapport and communication that develops with longstanding bands. We’ve now spent a lot of time on the road together, and we’ve all become closer friends. When you really get to know people, the music simultaneously becomes tighter and looser—tighter because the communication becomes quicker, and looser because you develop trust and a certain comfort level and therefore are able to take more risks both as a unit and individually.

Tone Madison: Before your solo covers record, Meltframe, dropped in 2015, and even more recently with the 2018 Johnny Smith tribute, Maid With The Flaxen Hair, you offered your take on Philip Catherine/Robert Wyatt’s “Nairam” on Illusionary Sea. It may have been the first cover I heard from you. I know you’re a fan of Wyatt’s work in particular, but what compelled you to include that song on the record?

Mary Halvorson: I don’t think I had initially planned to include a cover on that record at all. But then I remember listening to Wyatt’s album, Shleep, on headphones during a long train journey and all of a sudden I realized it would work perfectly as an arrangement for septet. I love the circularity and unpredictability of the melody, how everything sort of snakes back around and fits together in a unique way. And of course Robert Wyatt is a huge hero of mine, so it felt good to include that cover on the record. I think I started transcribing the tune that same day.

Tone Madison: Could you take us through your process of arranging and editing a piece by another composer or songwriter (perhaps one that stands out to you on Meltframe)? With something like Roscoe Mitchell’s “Leola,” for example, your version is several minutes shorter than the original.

Mary Halvorson: It’s hard to talk about arranging one piece on Meltframe without talking about arranging the whole record. Since it’s a solo guitar album, the challenge for me was: how do I create as much variety as possible within the sonic framework of solo guitar? So, on some of the pieces I stuck fairly closely to the original in form and approach. Others I referred to the original only tangentially. I tried to create variety of feel, tempo, sound and momentum. In other words, many of the arrangements were informed by what approach I hadn’t taken on other songs. Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” is an example. At the point when I started working on that one, I didn’t have anything really slow yet. And the melody of that tune is so strong by itself. So I decided to completely ignore the chord changes and just go with speed and melody, and harmonize spontaneously as I went. Part of it is just boiling it down to the essence of each piece; what is it that drew you to that song to begin with; and trying to extract that.

Tone Madison: In more recent years, you’ve continued to work with larger ensembles—a septet on Illusionary Sea, an octet on Away With You, and another septet on this upcoming sequel to Code Girl, adding a saxophonist and second vocalist. Is working in these contexts kind of challenging and liberating at once? Or do you see it simply as a logical and fluid extension of playing solo?

Mary Halvorson: With Code Girl, the second vocalist and second saxophonist are actually the same person: María Grand. She sings on some of the tracks and plays saxophone on other tracks. So, Code Girl is a sextet now. I liked the idea of having one member of the band in sort of a fluid role, so that sometimes I could have two horns and one voice, and other times one horn and two voices. As with my other large(ish) ensembles, the more people you have, the more colors and sonorities and arrangement possibilities come into play. Recently I’ve been enjoying that. It’s true that it’s both challenging and liberating at once.

Tone Madison: In some ways, writing for a large ensemble of instruments and voices significantly shifts the dynamics so your instrument may be more of an underlying force rather a pronounced one as it usually sounds with many of your other groups. Have you thought about taking things into even larger big band ensembles like Carla Bley or Paal Nilssen-Love have?

Mary Halvorson: As of now I haven’t had a strong desire to write for big band, but I also usually don’t think more than one project ahead. So, anything’s possible. But I don’t see that happening in the immediate future, at least. I feel I’m still working out possibilities with small groups and mid-size ensembles. I’ve been thinking of doing a new project with maybe nine or 10 musicians, but I’m still working out the idea.

Tone Madison: Besides composing for Code Girl, do you have any radical ideas for future endeavors—like recording with a J-Pop group or metal band (haha)? Since you have a bit of a background and interest in the sciences, have you thought about developing a conceptual theme for an album or series of albums… or (maybe this is a stretch) utilizing indeterminacy or generative music like Mamoru Fujieda has on his Patterns Of Plants?

Mary Halvorson: Ha! Well, given what I said above, that I don’t normally think more than one project ahead, I guess this will be a boring answer of “no!”

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