Mary Halvorson - The Maid With The Flaxen Hair

Label: Tzadik, 2018

Personnel - Mary Halvorson: guitar; Bill Frisell: guitar.


Pursuing fashionable sounds, Mary Halvorson joins forces with her fellow guitarist Bill Frisell on The Maid With The Flaxen Hair, where both follow their natural stylistic impulses to interpret nine ballads associated with Johnny Smith. The idea came from saxophonist John Zorn, who opened the doors of his record label, Tzadik, to these guitar-centric duets with abundance of melody and experimentation.

Electronic seasoning confers a 21st-century presentation to timeless standards shaped with hints of folk and country, cases of the languid “Moonlight in Vermont”, which even swings a bit in its B section after a few slow dissonant bends; “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning”, sculpted lightly with an uncompromising posture; “The Nearness of You”, limned with rhythmic staccato attacks and introductory melodic divagations to obtain a marvelously fresh sound; and “Misty”, whose unadulterated voice leading goes along with buzzing and sliding rusty drones.

Wry sounds spread throughout and sometimes the sound of the guitarists blend in such a way that it’s hard to say who’s doing what, especially when Halvorson doesn’t use that descendant pitch shifting effect that characterizes her playing. The title track, a classical prelude by Claude Debussy, exhibits echoing phrases and follows a necessary synchronization with a contemplative country-jazz propensity.

The duo pushes the envelope of the American folk idiom on both “Scarlet Ribbons For Her Hair”, a popular song, and “Shenandoah”, dated to the early 19th century.

The fanciful orchestrators end this session with Smith’s 1954 hit “Walk, Don't Run”, in which swinging jazz segments cohabit with Bach's innuendos.

This is a fun, accessible disc from two openminded sound-shapers who bring interesting ideas to songs from the past.

Grade  A-

Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Moonlight in Vermont ► 02 - The Maid With The Flaxen Hair ► 06 - The Nearness of You

Mary Halvorson - Code Girl

Label: Firehouse 12 Records, 2018

Personnel – Mary Halvorson: guitar; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Amirtha Kidambi: vocals; Michael Formanek: acoustic bass; Tomas Fujiwara: drums.


Guitarist Mary Halvorson is known for her ability to create wayward yet rich soundscapes. She has been spreading sonic charms in fruitful collaborations, usually in duo and trio formats. However, it was leading her octet that she definitely caught the jazz world’s attention, in a rapturous record from 2016 entitled Away With You. Now she’s back with a brand new experience permeated with genre-bending ideas, having penned lyrics and music of the 14 appealing tracks that compose Code Girl, a vocalized album envisioned for the quintet of the same name. It features Amirtha Kidambi on vocals, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Michael Formanek on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums.

My Mind I Find in Time”, the opening piece, is introduced by processed guitar replicas, giving a sensation that Halvorson is having an echoed conversation with herself. The powerful, incisive voice of Kidambi, a classical trained singer whose intonations sometimes bring Irene Aebi to mind, is placed over guitar melodies that take the form of rhythmic figures. Later on, while strumming, the guitarist designs pungent electro-acoustic chords, encouraging a striking pulse that sustains Akinmusire’s electrifying trumpet solo.

On “Possibility of Lightning”, guitarist and trumpeter utter parallel phrases with Kidambi’s voice flawlessly meddling to converge with their movements. While Formanek sticks to a pedal, distortion inflames Halvorson’s guitar, whose driving noisy bumps take us to alternative rock zones. Words and ‘ahs’ dance in counterpoint with guitar and trumpet, leading to a volatile crossing between the indie-rock bravery of Deerhoof and the innocuous modes of the new age.

Evoking King Crimson and Robert Wyatt, “Storm Cloud” unleashes melancholy through the guitar fingerpicking, a perfect vehicle for Kidambi’s forlorn and poetic declamation. Even with the bowed bass inflicting a deeper sense of gravitas, the robustness is only increased from the moment that Fujiwara takes action. The improvisations were assigned to the bandleader, who uses a slide-guitar effect for a quirky sound, and Akinmusire, who doesn’t rush his thoughts but builds them consistently.

Both “Pretty Mountain” and “Accurate Hit” are semi-obscure pop songs. The former is enlightened by Akinmusire’s fantastic improvisation and a few abrupt drum slaps, while the latter displays a simple harmonic progression painted blurred by Halvorson’s occasional dissonances.

The band interlocks pop/rock and cool swinging jazz with shape-shifting ease on “Off The Record”. After the guitarist’s idiosyncratic attacks and flashy effects, we have the gorgeous intervallic escalations emitted by the trumpeter.

The longest piece on the record and also one of the most beautiful, “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon” is a dramatic avant-garde excursion with lugubrious arco bass work, impeccable vocal technique, expressive guitar phrases constantly falling ‘outside’ the expected, and poised drumming. Fujiwara remains in an understated position until the trumpeter starts a galvanizing statement filled with static electricity. At that time, one of those magic clamors is created.

If “Thunderhead”, a consolidated collective instrumental, marches resolutely with additive meters, “And” plays with tempo and time signature, toggling between a slow 4/4 and a faster 7/4.

With an enviable openness and a propensity to explore the unknown, the unrivaled Halvorson crafts a fantastic album that I urge you to enjoy out loud.

        Grade  A

        Grade A

Favorable Tracks:
01 - My Mind I Find in Time ► 09 - The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon ► 10 - Thunderhead

Mary Halvorson Octet - Away with You

Mary Halvorson: guitar; Ingrid Laubrock: tenor saxophone; Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Jacob Garchik: trombone; Susan Alcorn: pedal steel guitar; John Hébert: bass; Ches Smith: drums.


Originally from Brookline, Massachusetts, and based in Brooklyn, New York, Mary Halvorson, a skillful guitarist, unpredictable improviser, gifted composer, and unavoidable figure of the avant-garde jazz current, has been very active in New York since 2002. Highly in-demand in the last couple of years, Halvorson has participated in several recordings as a sidewoman in addition to the release of her first solo album, Meltframe, and a few audacious duo and trio projects she co-leads. Her style usually features twisted-yet-beautiful harmonies and an out-of-the-box improvisational vision that encompasses complex patterns, audacious phrases, and dazzling atonal and polytonal approaches.

To give the most appropriate course to her tempting new album, Away With You, the unconventional 36-year-old guitarist brought together an extraordinary octet. The resultant body of work confers her, once and for all, the statute of large-ensemble leader.
Evincing a more melodic and cerebral approach than her previous works, the recording starts with “Spirit Splitter (No. 54)”, a distortedly symphonic volcano that spills rapturous counterpoints and steamy exchanges. Saxophonist Jon Irabagon puts his best foot forward, showing why he’s considered an outstanding improviser. Halvorson brands her quirky, tense chords right after a reverberant collective improvisation packed with horn sounds.
Her probing guitar dominates “Away With You (No. 55)”, a frolicking avant-pop piece that also counts on trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s unpretentious speeches and Ches Smith’s freethinking yet methodical drumming.

The Absolute Outmost (No. 52)” features Susan Alcorn playing her pedal guitar steel in a meditative way. Halvorson, opting for unusual sounds, and John Hébért, who bows the bass accordingly, join her until the fourth minute, time when the reeds erupt and a flamboyant rhythm is installed. Ingrid Laubrock excels with a portentous solo that encompasses melodious lines, hints of bop phrasing, and explosive temper.
Other notable tunes are “Fog Bank (No. 56)”, a suspenseful piece sculpted by guitar, bowed bass, and trombone; “Safety Orange (No. 59)”, an exquisite guitar-horn irreverence played at 3/4 tempo; and the conclusive “Inky Ribbons (No. 53)”, an unattached melodic song embellished by beautiful guitar interactions and featuring the reedists by turns.

Away With You is Halvorson’s most enlightened and maturest work so far. The gallant sonic tapestry weaved through the fabulous arrangements enhances the collective rather the individual. Still, sectional free forms and ravishing improvisations remind us that Halvorson’s uncanny knack for playing out of standardized zones remains intact. For our contentment!

         Grade  A+

         Grade A+

Favorite Tracks:
01 – Spirit Splitter ► 03 – The Absolute Outmost  08 – Inky Ribbons