Mary Halvorson, a guitarist and composer from New York, is always on the move. Currently, she is preparing for a Saturday evening performance at John Zorn’s venue, the Stone. After that, she will have to wake up at 5am the next day to catch a flight to Chicago for another show. As an improvising jazz musician, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite the demanding schedule and constant travel, she is grateful to be able to return to performing after the challenges of the Covid pandemic. From her home in Brooklyn, she expresses her gratitude for being able to play music again and perform shows. Although the travel can be exhausting, she chooses to focus on the joy of being able to do what she loves instead of complaining. After all, it beats sitting in an office.
Since making a splash in the world of creative music in 2002, Halvorson has established herself as a dynamic and captivating guitar player among her peers. She has collaborated with renowned artists such as Anthony Braxton, Jamaaladeen Tacuma (bassist for Ornette Coleman), Marc Ribot (guitarist for Tom Waits), and members of Deerhoof and Xiu Xiu. Despite her deep roots in jazz guitar, she is also well-versed in the disruptive and experimental styles of punk, no wave, and noise music.
Her own oeuvre is equally uncontainable. Meltframe, her 2015 solo album of standards, warped the likes of Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman into weird new shapes. Whether she’s playing in jazz ensembles, indie bands or noise improv, her tone is clean and crystalline, but liable to combust. With her latest, Cloudward, her writing reveals a newfound sense of beauty and clarity. “It signifies this period of optimism and moving forward,” she says. “But it’s also literal, like hey, we’re flying and travelling places again.” Tomeka Reid, cellist and longtime collaborator with Halvorson, says: “I feel like her personality really comes through on Cloudward … her sensitivity, generosity, care and her subtle humour.”
Halvorson began learning the violin in her second year of elementary school, but after listening to Jimi Hendrix, she decided to switch to the guitar. Although she originally planned to pursue biology at Wesleyan University, her passion for music continued to call to her. With the guidance of two professors, Anthony Braxton and experimental jazz guitarist Joe Morris, Halvorson’s attention shifted back to the guitar. In an interview, she shared that both Braxton and Morris emphasized the importance of experimentation, taking chances, and discovering one’s own unique style.
During the early 2000s, Halvorson became part of the music scene in New York City, where flexibility was crucial for success. She was willing to accept any opportunity, from playing in an avant-indie band called People, to collaborating with violist Jessica Pavone in chamber-jazz performances, to working with her former professor Braxton, as well as leading her own groups. Regardless of the project, her distinct style always shone through. Zorn once praised her as a “talented soloist with a distinct, sometimes unconventional approach and a lovely guitar tone that pays homage to tradition.”
However, there is a sharpness to this tradition, as her solos can quickly become unpredictable and intense. She explains, “I am naturally an optimistic person, but I am consistently drawn to darker music.” Her musical style and compositions showcase this contrast.
In 2019, Halvorson received the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius” grant. However, the worldwide pandemic abruptly halted her busy life as a traveling musician. Halvorson saw this as a much-needed break and took up new hobbies such as yoga, tarot, cocktails, and basketball. She spoke to We Jazz Magazine about how the lack of deadlines and time constraints felt different for her during the pandemic. She also used this time to compose music for her sextet and a string quartet, resulting in the release of her ambitious albums, Amaryllis and Belladonna, in 2021. These albums showcased Halvorson’s signature edginess and intensity, while also incorporating moments of delicate beauty.
Cloudward marks a new direction: According to Halvorson, “It’s completely different from my previous work in terms of my mindset while writing it.” She adds, “I used to have a tendency to overwrite. The biggest conscious change I made was to allow more space and breathing room.” In the past, she may have expanded her group or formed a new band, but she was so fond of the sextet that created Amaryllis that she kept it together. This sense of continuity and stability is evident in Cloudward. The track Unscrolling moves at a leisurely pace, driven by the bowed bass and expertly played cymbals. Similarly, the graceful intertwining melodies of the closing track Ultramarine showcase a deep understanding of how her band works together.
The Tower is a composition by Mary Halvorson that blends elements from her past and present. The piece is inspired by the tarot card of the same name, which symbolizes a time of upheaval and starting anew. The initial moments are frenzied and raw, but then transitions into a soothing ballad. Looking back at the past few years, Halvorson sees the influence of the pandemic in the piece and the album as a whole. She acknowledges that music can provide a temporary escape from chaos and be healing for people. However, she clarifies that her musical optimism is not necessarily reflective of her outlook on the state of the world.