Friday, October 8, 2010

Mary Halvorson

Mary Halvorson (guitar)

So I have a problem. I'm addicted to music. When I getting into an artist (or someone turns me on to a new artist/group) I end up throwing my chips all in. Meaning I end up on the long excitable and excruciating journey of trying to find everything that artist has recorded (or played on). That is what is happening now with a great new talent from New York, Mary Halvorson.

Mary Halvorson guitar work is well known inside the free jazz scene as a result of her association and performances with the legendary Anthony Braxton (sax), Elliot Sharp (guitar) and with Marc Ribot (guitar). She has also recorded and performed with Matana Roberts, Tom Rainey, Ingrid Laubrock, Jessica Pavone among others in the NY scene. Her style might be a combination of Marc Ribot, James Blood Ulmer, Thruston Moore (of Sonic Youth) and Joe Morris. In short, she's fucking amazing! Halvorson's playing is gentle and fluid but you can feel the harder edge she gives the material. It's owes more to indie-rock than jazz at times. But that is also what sets her apart from her contemporaries and mentors--a fresh, bright harder edge. It is something different that we haven't heard in a long time.

Mary Halvorson has recorded on over 25 albums but only twice as leader. The first album, Dragon's Head (Firehouse 12 Records; 2008), is an invigorating and audacious work showcasing her diverse skill as composer and performer. The work of her regular trio consisting of Ches Smith (drums) and John Hebert (bass) is dazzling. "Momentary Lapse" and "Sweeter Than You" both illustrate Halvorson's ability to construct a stop/start world of soundscapes with moments of sweet emotion and relentless frenetic pace that keep the you on edge throughout the recording.

The title track starts with Ches Smith whipping through a fierce solo before Halvorson quietly joins in and the two deliver a scintillating tet-a-tet that is augmented slightly with John Hebert quietly underneath. Dragon's Head closes with an post jazz/indie-rock curler of "April April May", a tune that Halvorson shifts patterns dramatically but inventively--all the while still managing to be intriguing. Dragon's Head, while not being her debut recording, still delivers a sculpture well shaped in composition and harmonics that make it truly unique, original and far superior than most of her contemporaries today.

Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12 Records; 2010) finds the same trio now expanded into a quintet with Jon Irabagon on sax and Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet. This adds a little more body and rhythm to some of the recordings. But it doesn't interfere with free flowing atmosphere of the original group. In fact I think it gives the musicians more strength and room to breath or expand on different themes. Halvorson is still the leader but allows the band to do some of the talking as on "Mile High Like" which Irabagon, Finlayson and Smith rip through notes while Halvorson's floats above and sometimes just underneath the rhythm. This is one the best examples of how this quintet melds together beautifully throughout Saturn Sings.

"Crack In Sky" and more importantly "Moon Traps In Seven Rings" are almost ballad-esque, with a loose abstract construction from Halvorson. Finlayson is the standout on "Moon Traps In Seven Rings" until about two thirds of the way in when Halvorson takes a Marc Ribot like solo and the group returns to the original melody. This is a great piece of writing. "Crack In Sky" sees Irabagon and Halvorson interplay beautifully--displaying Mary Halvorson can combine tradition and avant garde into something magical (similar to her mentor Anthony Braxton).

"Sea Seizure" again expresses the more indie-rock leaning side of Halvorson. It's a groove-laden track with aggression and agitation that could sit alongside anything Sonic Youth or Praxis could write. The title track, "Saturn Sings" opens with marching order-like quality led by Halvorson and Smith, only to return to a wonderful group dynamic played out by the rhythm section. Saturn Sings is an album that is another step up for Mary Halvorson in song writing, leadership and performance.

I have to say it again--I'm glad I was turned on to Mary Halvorson (by the guys at Downtown Music Gallery by the way). It has been a revelation. Her playing is devastating and really marks the coming of a true talent on the scene. Still impossible to believe that out of all the albums she has recorded on, these are the only two in which she is truly the leader. But I am now in search of everything. A bad addiction but its worth every spin of the disc. Hope you get addicted to Mary Halvorson too.


  1. I first saw Mary Halverson play with Braxton's Diamond Curtain Wall Trio before I had any idea who she was. At that performance I was stunned by her playing and wound up focusing on her in a very talented group. Her playing was so unusual that I spent a lot of time just trying to figure out why I was so struck by it. I was pleasantly surprised some time later to discover that she had a variety of recordings with different ensembles (and that I had picked up a recording at the Braxton show and forgotten about it) ... I've been following her career ever since.

  2. she also made quite a contribution on Trevor Dunn's second Trio-Convulsant record and is again, fucking amazing as a member of Thirteenth Assembly, not to mention People, a duo with drummer Kevin Shea, which is all together a different experience with Halvorson singing beautifully over her dissonant guitar and Shea's chaotic drum work.
    I first heard her on Trevor's cd, and altho blown away, the music fell very in line with his first Trio cd, and it wasn't until this year listening to her own Trio cd with Ches Smith that her voice really grew on me and she's now easily among my favorite guitarists and currently the only one i'm listening to obsessively. Cant wait for another People cd. Fantastic review, btw.