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On The Corner Masthead

No Cliches Allowed: Guitar Innovator Mary Halvorson Forges a New Way Ahead

June 24, 2019 | by Richard Scheinin

Mary Halvorson

When writers write about guitarist Mary Halvorson, certain adjectives crop up. Her relationship to her instrument is “physical” and even “confrontational.” Her improvised lines are “jagged,” “jolting,” “off kilter,” “spasmodic” and disrupted by “extra-terrestrial noises.” On the other hand, her tone – “snarling” or “distorted” – is also said to be “clean,” “beautiful” and “pure.”

“A physical relationship to the instrument? I definitely agree with that,” says Halvorson, a groundbreaking improviser and bandleader who performs July 18-21 at SFJAZZ, first with the collective trio Thumbscrew (now there’s a word that conveys physicality) and then with her own avant-art-song band known as Code Girl. Speaking from her apartment in Brooklyn, she explains her sound: “I play with pretty thick strings and use a hard pick, and I have kind of a hard attack – instinctually, when I started playing guitar, I just enjoyed playing that way,” says Halvorson, 38. “Because even while playing an electric guitar, one of the things I like is to have the acoustic sound come across really strongly – to hear the wood of the instrument. So it’s almost like there’s a duality. And I do like a pure sound. And I do like beautiful melodies; it’s not all jagged. But that could be a duality, too: beautiful and clean and melodic, but also aggressive and jarring. Probably the key word here is `balance.’ I like to have a balance of all those elements, where there’s something that sounds almost – almost – normal, and then something strange pops out.”

What exactly is this almost normal music that Halvorson plays? Is it jazz? Noise? Experimental rock? A fixture on the New York scene for about 15 years, she has few imitators, probably because her sound and concept remain so unique. She may be a “code girl,” but her musical vocabulary has yet to be widely codified; to some it may even sound – to use her own word – strange. That said, Halvorson has admirers in all corners of the music world. They range from the legendary avant-gardists Anthony Braxton and John Zorn to the super-straight-ahead guitarist Russell Malone, and they include inside-outside master players including trumpeter Dave Douglas and guitarist Bill Frisell. In 2018, after she and Frisell released The Maid With The Flaxen Hair -- their duo tribute album to Johnny Smith, the ‘50s jazz guitar guru -- Frisell recalled the first time he ever heard Halvorson play, about 10 years prior: “She had stripped away all the more typical mannerisms that people fall into. Her sound was so pure, it was so refreshing to hear just her fingers on the strings of the guitar… It was so free of cliché. It was almost like she stripped everything away and then started building her own sound from the ground up.”

Over the phone, you can almost see Halverson blush as Frisell’s quotation -- from a 2018 interview at the Reverb.com web site – is read aloud to her. She laughs, fumbling for words: “What do you say about it?,” she says, finally. “Bill is one of my all-time heroes on the guitar. Getting a chance to play with him is definitely one of the highlights of anything I’ve done.”

Yet as much as she looks up to Frisell, Halvorson is now an artist with her own imprimatur. Getting to play with her is a big deal for younger musicians, like 24-year-old trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, who will be part of the Code Girl lineup in San Francisco. The band is a departure for Halvorson, in that she functions as both composer and lyricist and has placed a singer, Amirtha Kidambi, at the center of the action. The songs – with titles like “my mind I find in time” and “the unexpected natural phenomenon” – can be pretty cryptic, lyrically speaking, with puzzle-like musical structures. They extend Halvorson’s musical journey, always filled with surprises. But they also represent a full-circle return to her childhood love of bands with singers.

Growing up in the Boston suburbs, she started on violin in second grade, studying fairly seriously and playing in youth orchestras. But by seventh grade, she was messing around with the electric guitar and growing obsessed with Jimi Hendrix. She taught herself to play “Little Wing” and “The Wind Cries Mary,” and, in retrospect, recognizes qualities in Hendrix’s playing that have stuck with her through the years. He “definitely had a physical relationship with the instrument,” she says, “and there was always an electricity about him in terms of his energy and attack. There was a really strong sense of melody there, too.”

She also was into the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and in eighth grade she formed a Smashing Pumpkins cover band with two of her friends. During high school, she saw the Allman Brothers Band perform six or seven times. Becoming something of a devotee, she was taken with “their energy and melodicism, their harmonies. I was really into it from the songwriting perspective.”

At the same time, she was studying with a jazz guitarist named Issi Rozen, and she started to explore her father’s record collection: “He had a lot of Ellington stuff. He had Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Monk. But he also had a lot of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and things like that. And I had a group of friends in high school who were into more experimental jazz things and one of them made me a mix tape, which I still have. It was what my friend considered the greatest hits of Dolphy, Mingus and Ornette (Coleman). So I was into all of that.”

Mary Halvorson

Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara, and Michael Formanek

In 1998, Halvorson enrolled at Wesleyan University, intending to major in biology. That changed after she signed up for classes taught by Anthony Braxton, the NEA Jazz Master who is one of the most unpredictable and advanced conceptualists of the past 50 years. She has an “early memory of a large ensemble class,” she says, “which was maybe 30 musicians, and we would just play his music, and, for me, that was like getting thrown into the deep end and not knowing how to swim. And a lot of the musicians in the group were not advanced. But we were playing this super-complicated music and somehow we got through it. Listening to him, I almost felt like I was learning another language. It was very exciting, really intense, and I remember thinking, `This is great and I have no idea what’s going on!’”

She began to sort it out, probably because Braxton was “very open and encouraging, and it didn’t feel like some kind of club that you were shut out of. It didn’t feel like some esoteric thing that you’d never be able to grasp. It was more like, `Come on in and check it out.’” Braxton urged Halvorson to take risks, to make mistakes. She found, she has said, that musical boundaries began to dissolve for her. She was at once learning jazz standards from the Real Book, while playing through “tons” of Braxton’s coded music – and driving to Manhattan with friends to soak up the downtown improvisational scene at venues including Tonic and the Knitting Factory. She saw Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. She saw John Zorn’s Masada, then transcribed a couple of Masada’s tunes off the group’s albums and played them with one of her college bands.

“So it was a big blend of things” that Halvorson was listening to and playing when she graduated from Wesley in 2002 and moved to New York City. For four years, to pay the rent, she worked an office job at an architecture firm. But gradually, steadily, she worked her way onto the scene, collaborating with scores of creative players – including Berne, Zorn and Braxton. She remembers touring with Braxton about five years ago: “We were sitting in a restaurant somewhere, maybe the Netherlands, and at that point I’d already started working on the music for my song project -- I just didn’t have a name for it. And I had this little notebook I was carrying around, and I would jot things down, bits of lyrics and ideas that came to me. And Anthony said these words: `code girl.’ I had no idea what he was referring to. I said, `What’s the code?’ And he said, `5555.’ And a long time later, I was looking through the notebook, and I remember seeing that: “code girl 5555.”

Needless to say, Code Girl became the name of her band and its eponymously titled debut album, a two-disc set released last year on the Firehouse 12 record label. (Ambrose Akinmusire is the trumpeter on the date.) It contains 14 songs – moody, twisting, space-filled, shadowy or brash, and highly improvisational – and Halverson cites an unexpected source of inspiration for her compositions: Fiona Apple. “I just think she’s phenomenal,” Halverson says. “Her singing is so powerful, and I love her songwriting. I discovered her late and I got really into it. My favorite record of hers is The Idler Wheel…, where it’s basically just her and a percussionist. So it’s this pretty stripped down concept. The power is all just coming from her voice and some piano and miscellaneous instruments and percussion. And what she’s able to do -- the beauty and the power of it, the emotional expression she’s able to get -- is just really incredible. And so when I was writing music for Code Girl, it was really inspiring to listen to Fiona.”

For its San Francisco performances (July 20 and 21), Code Girl – aside from O’Farrill, who has replaced Akinmusire in the group – will feature the same lineup as the album. Through a mutual friend, guitarist-songwriter Charlie Looker, Halverson met Kidambi: “She doesn’t sound anything like Fiona Apple,” Halvorson says, “but I think she has a similar power of delivery and power of presence.” Code Girl also includes two of Halvorson’s longtime associates, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. Independently, Halvorson, Formanek and Fujiwara comprise Thumbscrew, the collective trio that formed in 2011 and also will perform at SFJAZZ (July 18-19). With four albums under its belt, it is a kind of elastic power trio: “It’s a high energy thing,” Halvorson says, “though there are a lot of zones we go into. We did a record recently of jazz standards” – Theirs, from 2018 – “where we covered tunes by Wayne Shorter and Benny Golson. We even did `Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)’ as a tribute to Johnny Smith,” who recorded the tune in the late ‘50s. “But we try not to do any of them in a straightforward way. Some of them are in time and in forms, and some of them are more free. And I think we do the same – we mix it up – with our original tunes, too, making it all sound like Thumbscrew music. In my mind, there’s a particular way we interact just from knowing each other so well, which gives the group its own sound.”

Naturally, Halvorson has a slew of new projects in the works. They include a Thumbscrew album of compositions by Braxton, to honor him on his 75th birthday next year. Halvorson recently finished an album of duets with Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich, due out this fall, and she is composing another batch of songs for Code Girl, which will expand to a sextet with new member Maria Grand, the 27-year-old saxophonist.

“I’ve also been playing with this bassist Nick Dunston, who’s about 23 and is just an incredible musician,” Halvorson says. “I’ve been teaching at the New School and some of my students there are amazing -- and they’re like 19! So there are lots of great new players popping up in the next generation. For a long time I was always the youngest person in the band, and now I’m suddenly not.”

Mary Halvorson performs July 18-21 at the SFJAZZ Summer Sessions Concert Series.

A staff writer at SFJAZZ, Richard Scheinin is a lifelong journalist. He was the San Jose Mercury News' classical music and jazz critic for more than a decade and has profiled scores of public figures, from Ike Turner to Tony La Russa and the Dalai Lama.