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A beginner’s guide to innovative guitarist Mary Halvorson, ahead of her Walker double bill

Mary Halvorson

Mary Halvorson Peter Gannushkin

Large discographies are common enough in jazz’s freelance economy, but the guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson has been more prolific than most.

Though she won’t turn 40 till later this year, her website’s discography already runs to about 90 albums as a leader, collaborator, and sidewoman. Many of these sessions reflect her footing in improvised music’s avant-garde annex, but she has also drawn on straight-ahead jazz, indie noise, and experimental folk to build a distinctive body of work whose admirers include Pitchfork freelancers and the MacArthur Foundation.

On February 8, Halvorson returns to Walker Art Center for a two-pronged showcase, performing first with the long-running Thumbscrew, in which she teams with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, then with Code Girl, an art-song project in which that same trio is joined by singer Amirtha Kidambi, saxophonist and vocalist María Grand, and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill.

While at Wesleyan University, Halvorson studied under, and later played with, the great vanguardist Anthony Braxton. In an interview with Graham Lock, Braxton quoted an old modernist mandate: “Listen to everybody so you know what not to play.” He passed on similar advice to students, encouraging Halvorson to develop her own vocabulary. She did it: Spend a few days with Halvorson’s music and quite likely, six months later, you’ll recognize her playing without checking the credits.

Halvorson’s go-to guitar is a Guild Artist Award, a large archtop with a projecting acoustic sound. Practicing alone on such a guitar, you don’t really need amplification, especially if, like Halvorson, you play with a lot of attack. When recording, Halvorson typically mikes the guitar as well as a small amp, preserving much of the Guild’s acoustic sound: clear, balanced, and woody but without singing sustain. For processing, she’ll sometimes use overdrive—check out her ballistic solo reinvention of Oliver Nelson’s “Cascades”—as well as delay, usually a hint, sometimes a heap, as on the lovely solo she takes on “RN,” a tune from cellist Tomeka Reid’s recent quartet album, Old New. In terms of gizmos, Halvorson’s characteristic move—employed impressively and excessively—is to chain her delay to an expression pedal, which lets her sweep through delay speeds to create slides, bends, Looney Tunes portamenti, and other pitch-shifting effects.

Another defining part of Halvorson’s sound comes from how she mixes in open (unfretted) strings with notes fretted higher up on the neck. She’ll use open strings for unusual chord voicings, and as way to introduce octave displacement, to break up a phrase by throwing in a note from another octave—standard practice in itself, but Halvorson’s use of open strings, and her comfort around atonality, can make her improvisations jumpy and collage-like, sometimes reminiscent of Derek Bailey’s pioneering improvisations.

For a concentrated introduction to Halvorson’s style and idiosyncratic interpretative approach, try 2015’s solo Meltframe. She’s as distinctive, however, when less foregrounded, such as on the highly recommended Away with You, an octet record that includes a four-horn frontline and gorgeous pedal-steel work by Susan Alcorn. That album’s opener, “Spirit Splitter,” has soaring melodies, exciting rhythmic hiccups, and intricate part writing rubbing up against planned collective dishevelment.

In a 2014 video made for Jazz at Lincoln Center, Halvorson remembers a two-gig night in which she played three sets of standards at a restaurant, then two sets of free improv somewhere else. Approaching the free gig with the standards still in her head and under her fingers helped her wed these previously segregated parts of her training. One product of that breakthrough is Thumbscrew’s Theirs, a worldly 2008 mix of often-recorded tunes—“Scarlet Ribbons (for Her Hair),” Jimmy Rowles’s “The Peacocks,” Benny Golson’s “Stablemates”—and less familiar pieces by Mischa Mengelberg, Jacob Do Bandolim, and others. The record swings approachably—at a hipper restaurant, it could easily be dinner music—but the tunes are sometimes eerily reharmonized, and with Halvorson frequently pedaling her delay fluctuations, the music can sound like it’s coming out of a cassette player anchored to the bottom of a swimming pool. In a good way.

Ours, the album’s simultaneously released companion, has originals by all three members, including the flowering “Smoketree” (a Halvorson tune but a Formanek showcase), Fujiwara’s rhythmically tricky “Rising Snow,” and Formanek’s time-shifting, grungy “Cruel Heartless Bastards.” In addition to playing together in Thumbscrew and Code Girl, the players overlap in several other projects, and they play with continual sympathy.

Halvorson has also long been interested in blending her avant-garde roots with song forms in and out of the jazz tradition. Her collaborations with the violinist and composer Jessica Pavone can sit on the edge of the singer-songwriter stool, and Halvorson’s solo rendition of Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino” sounds in spots like a forcefully strummed rock ballad by Hendrix or Cobain. Code Girl, her most ambitious effort in this area, made its recorded debut with a 2018 double album featuring the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire—whose The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint includes a few forays into experimental song—along with Halvorson, Kidambi, Formanek, and Fujiwara. Eleven of the album’s fourteen pieces include Halvorson’s lyrics, which are often discontinuous (“carpet door/same mistake/case sensitive/thought free”) and sometimes cut and paste their way through romantic or emotional terrain with a sort of industrial formality (“if you have not completed/an announcement of trust in me/refer to the bad person/and recognize me in the old/from another point of view”). These words—sometimes elegant, sometimes flat—present obvious phrasing hurdles and have been set to melodies full of chromaticism and wide intervals, challenges met without apparent anxiety by the formidable Kidambi.

The group no longer includes the busy Akinmusire but has expanded to the sextet named above. Halvorson wrote by email that the group recorded the second book of Code Girl songs this past December, with a release planned by Firehouse 12 Records for the fall of this year. The Walker set will be made up of this new material. I was slow to warm to the first Code Girl album but was eventually seduced and inspired by its spiky beauty and mingle of composition and improvisation, and by how it imagines directions for song neither traditional nor recognizably trendy, though possibly, hopefully, trend-setting.

Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl and Thumbscrew
Where: McGuire Theater, Walker Art Center
When: 8 p.m. Sat. Feb. 8
Tickets: $20.80/$26: more info here