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Destined: Mary Halvorson

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Dusted’s Jason Bivins profiles New York guitarist and Destined selection Mary Halvorson.

Destined: Mary Halvorson

  • Download “Momentary Lapse (No. 1)” by the Mary Halvorson Trio

    Mary Halvorson was on her way out the door to play on WNYC, before going off to work, before heading off to Boston, before . . . it seems the guitarist/bandleader/composer is on her way a lot, not just in the peripatetic sense of moving between performances and rehearsals, but also in the larger sense of being on her way to making some pretty important musical contributions. Actually, she’s already making them, not just as a key member of what is arguably Anthony Braxton’s most important circle of collaborators in 15 years but also in her own trio (with bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith, whose Dragon’s Head just made the Village Voice’s Top 50 list), her ongoing duo with violist Jessica Pavone, and in her “avant rock” band People (with bassist Kyle Forester and drummer Kevin Shea).

    The whole notion of Destined sounds focused on arrival and endpoints. But Halvorson is more interested in process, trying to “capture different types of energies with traditional instrumentation.” Her own ongoing process began with the purchase of a Beach Boys disc. Later, the Boston native says she “started guitar at age 12 because I loved Jimi Hendrix.” Her teacher Issi Rozen “happened to be a jazz guitarist.” Halvorson just went along with Rozen’s inclinations and soon thereafter “discovered my dad’s record collection, so I was checking out Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk.” But, almost like an embodiment of Halvorson’s fascination with unpredictability (something she relishes in her improvising and composing), it wasn’t until a high school friend made her a mix tape with Mingus, Dolphy, and Ornette that she really got the bug: “I loved all of that stuff right away.”

    Maybe it was, ahem, destined that Halvorson (pictured above by Peter Gannushkin) would end up at Wesleyan, in the midst of “a highly creative student body” and later a student of Anthony Braxton (“of course he was a huge influence”). As her confidence grew, especially under the influence of the generous and spirited Braxton, Halvorson became both a musical omnivore (she and friends often drove to Manhattan to attend shows by John Zorn, Blood Ulmer, and Tim Berne), and started “experimenting and trying out different ideas” as a matter of course. Amidst this creative ferment she “reached a certain point where I realized I wasn’t turning back.”

    This zeal for things that are “unsafe” is what makes Halvorson’s music so fresh. It’s nothing that’s especially tied in with genre – straying from one, embracing another – so much as it’s tied in with feel and with some strategies of avoidance. Halvorson enthused about a recent Wayne Shorter concert she attended, whose beauty was achieved in part because you could “love the music and feel lost at the same time.”

    While a lot of what’s been written about her has hewn to some kind of journalistic “angle” – usually either “golly, she’s a woman playing guitar” or “golly, some of this sounds like rock” – what’s most provocative about Halvorson is just this kind of tension, a sound that seems to embody all the open-ended possibilities of musical convergences, interstitial music, where boundaries get problematized, where scene insularity gets exploded (just listen to songs like “Sweeter Than You” and “Too Many Ties” from Dragon’s Head).

    At the heart of it all is the slightly raw, emphatic, unvarnished sound of Halvorson’s guitar. Funny, since she admits to having “a love/hate relationship” with the instrument. She says “I tend not to like the sound/role of traditional jazz guitar. So a lot of my ideas and concepts were motivated by a kind of anti-guitar approach.” But after an experience where she recalls “feeling overwhelmed by an extreme hatred for the guitar,” Halvorson “decided I needed to just embrace it. So I went out and bought a bunch of effects pedals and pushed through it.” She’s developed a sound (and a deceptively complex writing style) that’s really dynamic, as concerned with the space between notes as with anything “aggressive.”

    But there’s not much space in Halvorson’s schedule. Aside from playing with an increasingly vast number of other folks’ groups (Berne, Braxton, Nicole Mitchell, et. al.), she’s “recently recorded a third album for the Mary Halvorson & Jessica Pavone duo, called Thin Air,” out this spring on Thirsty Ear. Next up is a new album from People and she’s writing “some new music for my trio and also planning on adding a couple horns and writing for a quintet as well.”

    Halvorson’s deep into a purple patch right now, and her music all brims with that lovely lostness. She doesn’t always know how to describe it to her friends and family who aren’t musicians: “Usually I just say I play weird music and they probably wouldn’t like it.” Their loss.

    By Jason Bivins

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