Mary Halvorson

Amaryllis / Belladonna

It’s hardly news that there are two levels of composition in jazz — first, the formal realm of tunes and arrangements, and second, the spontaneous magic of improvisation. With her twin solo albums Amaryllis and Belladonna, Mary Halvorson proves that she’s top-of-the-field on both fronts, operating in two distinctly different milieus.

Amaryllis uses something more like a conventional jazz combo, built around drums, bass, vibes and horns, with string quartet sweetening only its second half. There are moments, as with the mock-solemn opening of “Anesthesia,” when Halvorson’s charts evoke the idiosyncratic charm of Carla Bley (it would not have sounded out of place on A Genuine Tong Funeral).

But most is pure Halvorson. Take “Night Shift,” with its stuttering, chordal head, and guitar cloud-chords floating over a gruff solo by trombonist Jacob Garchik. Or “Amaryllis,” which sets its dark, breathless melody over an étude-like ostinato that has the band ticking like an overwound clock.

Belladonna, by contrast, is just guitar and string quartet, although given breadth of the results, “just” is perhaps an understatement. Halvorson has great fun playing with form, pushing against the playful call-and-response of “Flying Song” or building witty counterpoint into “Moonburn,” but what truly dazzles is her compositional audacity. “Belladonna,” for instance, has the snap and rhythmic drive of a Bartók string quartet, plus searing electric guitar.

What more could a listener want?

On Sale Now
December 2023
Pharoah Sanders
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