The World On Six Strings

Sasha Frere-Jones on Mary Halvorson

Mary Halvorson. Performance view. Photo: Gulbenkian Música/Petra Cvelbar.

A SUMMER OF MARY HALVORSON will tell you anything you want to know about the guitar. Her sound is as clean and strong as water, sustaining everything around it. She plays an electric archtop guitar, a Guild Artist Award issued in 1970, which is essentially an acoustic guitar with a pickup installed near the neck, where the strings sway and the body sings. The Artist Award, as Halvorson plays it, is a guide into the line and the note. Her tone serves her ideas, not the reverse. Halvorson doesn’t often distort her signal or blur what she’s presenting. She doesn’t go for clouds and sheets. If her music is jazz—and there is reason to suspect that this word may not adequately describe her practice—it is because jazz prioritizes time for the improviser, and that improviser’s voice. You can hear the lineage in Halvorson’s hands—Django, Charlie Christian, John McLaughlin, Joe Morris, and Johnny Smith—but only after you hear her. Hers is the slapback of history.

Halvorson is a guitarist, composer and bandleader from the Boston area who studied for several years with Anthony Braxton. She came to New York in 2002 and, since then, has appeared on almost a hundred recordings. The variety of her collaborators is impressive—Greg Saunier, Anthony Braxton, Ingrid Laubrock, Xiu Xiu, Tomeka Reid, Jason Moran, Marc Ribot, Christian Marclay, Weasel Walter, Anthony Braxton, John Zorn, Jessica Pavone, and Robbie Lee, to name a few—even in an improvising scene thick with cohorts.

On July 19 at the Village Vanguard, she performed with Thumbscrew, a trio sometimes mistakenly described as a band Halvorson leads. A full collaboration with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew released two magnificent albums this year, Ours and Theirs, which are best understood as a large pair. Halvorson plays sitting down, without exception. Her right foot controls a volume pedal, and her left foot works with an expression pedal that controls her Line Six delay unit. A music stand, placed slightly to her left, frames Halvorson, drawing her and our attention in and down, as she roots herself in the music.

The set began with “Snarling Joys,” a Halvorson composition from Ours, a snaky dialogue between bass and guitar. Formanek has a remarkable tone, equal parts low, midrange, and high, and he pulls hard, making himself permanently audible, rarely lost in the polite shadows an upright bass player sometimes ends up in. In this piece, Formanek and Halvorson find their ovals, the bass reaching out into softer loops while Halvorson buckets sharp down the middle. Fujiwara has developed a language of shapes as a drummer, moving his sounds into the corners of the composition like drifts of sand. His energy sweeps the band to the center while leaving spacious gaps for the other players. Thumbscrew has an intensity to their balance, since control is so central to the work of each musician. If Halvorson is sudsy, Thumbscrew is her tub, perfectly proportioned and as balanced as Thanos.

Thurston Moore, Drew Gress, Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara, Greg Cohen, Matt Hollenberg, John Zorn. Performance view. Photo: Gulbenkian Música/Petra Cvelbar.

A few weeks later in Lisbon, Portugal, at the John Zorn edition of the Jazz Em Agosto festival, Halvorson had a chance to work her flow around a gang of different players. On the first night, in the absence of Milford Graves, who had cancelled because of illness, Zorn presented a Stone improv night, a round robin for which he puts together different arrangements of players who then move quickly through formations, working for five to ten minutes each before letting the next team play. Paired with bassists Greg Cohen and Drew Gress, Halvorson threw out lemony clusters, and trilled high to sound like a mandolin, another archtop instrument. (In Lisbon, Halvorson played a travel model made specifically for her by luthier Flip Scipio that carefully reproduces some attributes of her Guild Artist Award without the size and fragility.) One of the moves she created with her Line Six is now a part of her language as a guitarist, and is major in its own way. Very quickly sending her signal through a delay setting, and then retreating, Halvorson creates an effect that has often been called a pitch bend, but isn’t exactly. She is flinging the note backwards, through space, and then lassoing it back. The moment passes quickly and happens often in her playing, with roughly the same behavioral frequency of someone’s plucking hand heeling up on a whammy bar and ooching the note for a split-second. At the end of the improv set, in an ensemble piece with all the players, Halvorson’s guitar was the bright stream running through Thurston Moore’s dark ecstatic shavings.

The next night, Halvorson and Fujiwara reunited with Gress, and was joined by guitarist Miles Okazaki, to play music from Zorn’s Book of Angels. Most of the repertoire came from last year’s Paimon, a crisp and pretty recording of these four playing Zorn’s tunes, released on the composer’s label, Tzadik. In the open-air amphitheater at Foundation Gulbenkian, one of the most pleasant outdoor venues in the world (it’s not stadium-sized, and that’s part of it), Okazaki and Halvorson were luminous on one of the album’s few slow tunes, “Verchiel.” Both dedicated to a generally unadorned string and body sound, Okazaki and Halvorson waltzed so subtly through this tune it’s not clear if the crowd could actually hear how good they were. Okazaki did his miraculously chopped runs, scraping out chandeliers of grapes, each note absolutely audible. Halvorson rode her pedals, warping her speedy progressions into whorls and Fujiwara ramped up his intensity, all of which made me want to hear this band playing this material again.

Mary Halvorson. Performance view. Photo: Gulbenkian Música/Petra Cvelbar.

Then in August, Halvorson and Fujiwara played as part of the drummer’s Triple Double band: two drummers, two horns, two guitars. This lineup duplicated the crew that recorded their 2017 self-titled debut, which improves with each listen. If Thumbscrew works the angles of precision, Triple Double is a platform for collapsing beauty, where compositions barely contain the players. Against drummer Gerald Cleaver, who was bruising and full of force, Fujiwara pushed his technique and played along the edges of time. On a lament titled “Love and Protest,” trumpeter Ralph Alessi and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum maintained Ayler-like lines while making way for a long passage from Halvorson, who fluttered in the echo. Something about Triple Double allows Halvorson and Fujiwara both to rattle their own styles without reaching. One of Halvorson’s best foils that night was guitarist Brandon Seabrook, a scratcher with wild range. His noisy specificities reinforced how distinct Halvorson is, even in the middle of loud material.

This summer of Halvorson finishes with her new collaboration with Bill Frisell, The Maid With The Flaxen Hair: A Tribute To Johnny Smith. Before she knew his music, Halvorson channeled Smith. The musician designed his Guild guitar in the 1950s, when it was introduced as the Johnny Smith. In the ’60s, when Smith had moved on to design guitars for Gibson, it was renamed the Artist Award. A gifted player known mostly for writing “Walk Don’t Run,” and more revered than famous, Smith was a hardcore classicist, an antecedent for Halvorson. His tone and phrasing were as direct and well-formed as guitar playing gets. If there is anything off-center about Smith, it is tucked into the folds of his relaxing beauty. (Smith’s 1958 album, Easy Listening, represents a relatively early use of the now-derogatory phrase, but at the time it didn’t seem at all like a putdown when taken in tandem with the gentle burn he offered.)

Frisell and Halvorson are a model of mutual advancement, more intensely themselves when together. Frisell has reined in his trademark delay settings and feels closer to the listener. Frisell plays it straight on one of Smith’s favorite standards, “Misty,” parsing out the melody. Halvorson positions herself as the outlier, stirring her strings into an anxious froth, providing the aggression to counter Frisell’s stately vibe. Throughout the album, the combination of Frisell and his elegant echo with Halvorson’s dipping tones makes for melty listening—and this is the beauty of classicism as Halvorson interprets it. The thing expressed in what seems like a clear form demands that we think about the thing and the form and whether it is or isn’t adorned. All of those magnificent swoops and twists coming from her pedals just highlight a bigger and brighter line being drawn. Which may be the only actual principle at play: that she refuses to hide, and presents all of her material without apology or qualification.

Mary Halvorson/Bill Frisell Duo & Robbie Lee/Mary Halvorson Duo will play Le Poisson Rouge in New York City on Monday, September 17th.