Playing at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village—the downstairs club that has been the home of 132 live recordings from John Coltrane to Thelonious Monk to Dexter Gordon—marks a jazz artist’s pinnacle of success. In the past decade, the programming has opened ears to the top young jazz acts of the day.
So when ascendant avant-garde guitarist Mary Halvorson got the call last November to make her debut as a leader with her octet July 18–23, she was thrilled. “I was super excited,” said the guitarist, who in 2016 released the acclaimed Away With You on Firehouse 12 Records. “I recorded Away With You as an octet, and I didn’t think I was going to get many gigs. I figured I would do a record release in New York, and that’d be it. But we played at New York’s Winter Jazzfest this January and I’ve been invited to bring the octet to the D.C. Jazz Festival in June and later this year to the Chicago Jazz Festival. But playing for six nights at the Vanguard allows us to grow as a group, to take the music to the next level. You’re going to hear expanded versions of the songs.”
The octet for the Vanguard date comprises alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Jacob Garchik, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn, drummer Ches Smith and bassist Chris Lightcap, who will subbing for John Hébert.
Away With You, with its uniquely angular and lyrical music, was one of the best albums of 2016. Originally, Halvorson hadn’t planned to have such a large ensemble, but she expanded her septet by inviting pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn to join the band. As it turned out, Alcorn, with her innovative improvisation sensibility and her instrument’s wide sonic range—lower than an upright bass and higher than a trumpet—proved to “be the glue” to the project.
When Halvorson got the green light to play the Vanguard, she knew she would deliver music from the album, but desired to extend the octet’s repertoire. “All the music I had written for the octet was on Away With You,” she said. “I didn’t want to be playing the same tunes every set, so I composed new pieces to insure I could have at least two sets of different music each night.” She wrote brand new compositions that she’ll premiere at the Vanguard, and then she dredged up a couple of her older tunes as source material for an update. “These pieces were songs I had written for my quartet or quintet that never got recorded or played much,” she said. “I rearranged them pretty drastically. I took the melodic ideas and put them on different instruments. I took out certain sections and added in other sections. I took these old songs as a starting point.”
In a nod to one of her mentors, Anthony Braxton, she assigned numbers to the new works, without any names. “It’s just a way for me to keep track of them,” she said. “The numbers are place holders. Eventually they will all have names. I did that on Away With You, where the tunes were numbered and then I wrote the titles later.”
Halvorson says that the way she composes for the octet is radically different from the way she composes for her other groups. “The octet music is based in improvisation,” she said. “When I wrote I improvised on my guitar until I found an idea. It may have been a melody fragment or chord changes or a bass line or rhythmic idea. I expanded on it like a train of thought, filling in parts and revising and moving things around. It’s a quick process. I fine-tuned it later. Bringing it to the octet is the most enjoyable part, fixing the little details like should we play this part an octave higher or change the tempo.”
Halvorson promises that her Vanguard dates will be shows of fluid motion with the improvisational element of unexpected surprises. This will be her first time as leader in the heralded club, but one surmises it probably won’t be her last. DB