Mary Halvorson: Album of the Year/Guitarist of the Year


“It’s fun to put different people together to play my music,” Halvorson says. “They all take it seriously.”

(Photo: Michael Wilson)

In 2017, Mary Halvorson unpredictably garnered the top guitarist award in DownBeat’s Critics Poll, outpacing perennial six-string victors such as Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and John Scofield.

“It’s insane,” Halvorson said over espresso at Kos Kaffe Roasting House in Brooklyn soon after her first guitar award was announced.

“I don’t feel like I’m the best guitarist, but it is an honor,” she said. “When I became a musician and started playing the kind of music that I do, I had very low expectations for getting any kind of people listening to it and enjoying it. I went into this thinking, I believe in this, and I really enjoy doing it, so I’m going to keep working on it. I did not do it with hopes for success.

But when things like this happen, it blows my mind. I appreciate it. For me, it’s a chance for having my music be heard more than I would have hoped for.”

Fast-forward seven years and Halvorson has once again scored the No. 1 guitarist trophy in the 2023 DownBeat Critics Poll — her seventh year in a row.

But the biggest story is Halvorson recording DownBeat’s Album of the Year — the superb two-LP suite Amaryllis & Belladonna, which features her steady sextet on one recording and a string quartet on the other. As she firmly says, she’s never liked being placed in a box. And this double-header demonstrates that.

Massachusetts-born and Brooklyn-based, Halvorson has evolved into an unorthodox guitarist who has been heralded as the next important singular six-stringer with a new voice. She delivers a strong string attack, a very dry sound, an open crunch with shape experiments, a luscious lyricism and a keen attention to the acoustic element of the guitar even though she’s amplified and using octave pedal effects.

After Halvorson’s first award, jazz aficionados were curious enough to give a close listen to her own bands, her collective collaboration in Thumbscrew with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and even her supporting improvisational role in Marc Ribot’s The Young Philadelphians project.

Two years after her first DownBeat poll award, Halvorson was awarded the prestigious 2019 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, often called the Genius Grant. Not bad for an artist whose music challenges and fascinates all the same time. It’s not your typical mainstream jazz but a more reconstructed transformation of the genre that deserves rapt attention. For the past decade, Halvorson has been captivating listeners with a series of projects of unconventional beauty and breathtaking magic.

Boutique label Nonesuch took notice and offered Halvorson free rein to follow her creative desires. What results is the first masterwork of her career, which she describes as a musical adventure that is “modular and interlocking, existing separately then coming together.”

Is Amaryllis & Belladonna jazz?

“Whenever people ask me that question, I say that I don’t know,” says Halvorson. “I’m not too attached to the label, but I’m certainly influenced by jazz. With the strings, it may not seem so much jazz, but I’m improvising on guitar throughout.”

In talking about the complexity of her music in the two suites, Halvorson says, “I‘ve never been into composing complex music for the sake of complexity. Some of it may be complex and difficult to execute, but that’s what I’m hearing. I don’t shy away from writing something simple. I go out and dig deeper. I get excited when I go left of center.”

Her unique architectural forms for this project were created during the pandemic shutdown, and in many ways reflected the open-ended opportunity to design a new language of jazz. Amaryllis features Halvorson’s new sextet — an improvisatory big-sound combo of old and new friends comprising trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, trombonist Jacob Garchik, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Fujiwara — as well as three pieces composed for collaboration with the Mivos Quartet.

Halvorson turns the focus fully onto the string quartet on the other album suite, Belladonna. In both recordings, she delivers bent chords that sound out of tune, dissonant lyricism, perplexing guitar lines, angu- lar six-string velocity and delicate percussive plucks — in refracted urgency and surprise. She engages in compelling guitar conversations with her teammates.

The sextet proved to be the key to Halvorson’s soundscape. “It doesn’t always feel like a fit when you put together a band,” she says. “But when we rehearsed, it felt right from the first note. We did two gigs at Roulette and then went into the studio.”

Halvorson opens Amaryllis with the kaleidoscopic “Night Shift,” a palette of shining colors. The title tune gets rowdy and riveting, all with Halvorson’s skipping lead. The finale, “Teeth” offers a sonic surprise where Halvorson shifts gears at the ending, with a flurry of octave pedal effects that come in from deep left field. “At that point, the piece was calling for something different,” she says with a smile.

“It’s fun to put different people together to play my music,” Halvorson says. “They all take it seriously. They learn the music. They are people I like to hang out with, and we all enjoy working on the music, which matters a lot to me.”

The classically trained Brennan says that while she’s a percussionist at heart, she sees the sonic possibilities of the vibes and began playing in New York’s improv-rich scene. “Mary’s compositional style and approach resonates with me,” she says. “This is where I’m going.”

On Belladonna, Halvorson goes full-dive into playing only with the string quartet. Classically trained as a violinist before the guitar wooed her, she returned to an avant-classical setting, envisioning what a string quartet would sound like in the context of her music.

It was monumental challenge. Certainly, Halvorson had the time to research and then set out to learn how to write for strings. It had to be in the zone of “not doing something in a half-assed way.”

Her teacher? Experimental violinist Jessica Pavone, who is one of her closest friends and frequent duo collaborator for 20 years.

“Jessica was so helpful to make what I was writing clear and cohesive and not awkward,” says Halvorson. “She made sense about the bowings and the articulations of strings.”

It makes for a completely different suite of music. The pensive, then exciting “Nodding Yellow” features Halvorson and the quartet intersecting, “Flying Song” features more guitar-strings conversations and the title tune arrives with a winsome feel.

All told, Halvorson’s music expects the unexpected with a sting (Amaryllis, for example, is the name of a beautiful South African plant that is also deadly poisonous) but also an eye-winking sense of humor. “I would agree that I’m playful,” she says. “But some of it leans to darkness. So, the playfulness balances that out.”

Halvorson has already recorded a new album for her sextet, now officially called Amaryllis. She took the new music for a European tour in March, then headed home to the studio to record tracks slated for release early next year. In addition, Halvorson has been busy with Thumbscrew’s current artist residency in Pittsburgh. She’ll be doing a duo project with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and touring with cellist Tomeka Reid’s quartet. And, finally, she’s introducing the new improvisation collective Illegal Crowns with cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, pianist Benoit Delbecq and Fujiwara. DB

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