The New York Times has described guitarist Mary Halvorson as “an improviser of sly, beguiling logic” while the Wall Street Journal went on to declare Mary Halvorson “one of the most exciting and original guitarists in jazz.” Heady praise, indeed—and well deserved, as anyone who has heard her can attest. Halvorson regularly plays over 100 gigs a year in the U.S. and Europe and has built up an impressive discography over the past decade, totaling some 40 recordings in various configurations, including three widely acclaimed CDs under her own name for Firehouse 12. The most recent, Bending Bridges, features her usual quintet with Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone, John Hébert on bass and Ches Smith on drums—but a new septet recording with Ingrid Laubrock on saxophones and Jacob Garchik on trombone is due out next summer. I had an opportunity to chat with Ms. Halvorson before her quintet’s performance at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University on December 1, 2012.
You’ve also gotten a lot of great press, in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, a big write-up in Downbeat this year—have you had any major labels come knocking on your door wanting you do something?
Actually, I haven’t (laughs).
Maybe that’s a good thing?
Yeah. I’ve actually been really happy working with Firehouse 12. That’s been really great and, in a sense, I don’t really see a need for it. I have total control over the music and they do a great job and they also have great insight Nick Lloyd is really great in the studio from Firehouse and if I ever have some kind of a question, he always has great opinions. I’m just really comfortable with them and I really like working with them.
Do you like making records?
I love making records.
I can sort of tell—you have a pretty big discography!
It’s just so nice, recording is such a nice process, I think. I really enjoy it.
A lot of jazz folks act like they don’t like making records.
Like, you know, the bandstand is where it’s at—
Yeah, probably if I had to choose one, I would be a performer rather than a recording artist.
I don’t hear a lot of difference between you on the bandstand and on records, maybe because you seem to rehearse a lot.
Yeah, well, my band doesn’t rehearse a lot [laughs] but we play a lot of shows. It’s different, there’s a different energy you get in the studio and it’s different than a live show. The nice thing about recording is the clarity that you’re able to present that can’t always get in a live show. Maybe the sound is bad or maybe one side of the room you can’t hear the guitar, the other side you can’t hear the bass, you know? It’s nice to present something the way you want it heard, with exact precision, I kind of like that about it.
I read somewhere that the first record you owned was a Beach Boys record. Which record was that?
Oh yeah. It was a cassette tape. I was probably five or six years old. I don’t know why I picked up this particular one, but it was Surfin’ USA [laughter]. And I thought I was so cool, I had this little cassette deck and the tape.
How funny! Are the Beach Boys something you still care about?
I love the Beach Boys. I still do. I really don’t know why I got that tape but I really liked it. I mean, that’s not my favorite Beach Boys, but that was what I picked up.
That’s funny. I know the Beach Boys are supposed to be great but I just don’t get it.
You don’t like it? (laughs)
It sounds old-fashioned to me.
That’s funny. I guess I like some stuff that sounds old-fashioned, sometimes I’m into that.
I kind of hear that in your quintet, in a way. On the surface it’s quite accessible, really.
You might think so, but I think some people would hear it and be like, “this is totally unlistenable!” (Laughter) So I think that’s what’s interesting about it is that it really just depends on what perspective you’re coming from.
Well, it’s not like you ever stay in one place. The head may be sort of swinging with nice jazz harmonies and then it will take a left turn and it will open up. You’ve talked about composing so there’s space for improvisation—how do you go about constructing that?
I try to have variety in what types of spaces they are. Some of the spaces will be completely open for improvising. Maybe one person might be the soloist but basically we finished that melody, which was “A,” and we know we have to get to “B,” which is maybe a pretty different sounding section, so you’re just bridging the gap between those two sections and within that anything can happen. That’s one scenario. Sometimes I have stuff that’s over a form and people are improvising over a form. Even then, there’s always the option you could go off that if you want to. I never want it to be like people are caged in.
Even if there is a form for that improvisation section, it’s not like you take the harmonic structure and just play the chord changes over and over again and then come back and play the melody.
Right. It might be vaguely based on that but it will be a little different because often it doesn’t go back to that first melody. So maybe it does take some harmonic material from the melody and use it in a different way to a vamp or a form. Sometimes things like that are happening or there will be background lines happening underneath that other people are playing. Or sometimes there’s a duo that’s happening with two instruments, or sometimes it’s a solo. I try to create different structures so it’s not always like, “oh, they played the melody and here’s the free section again” because I think that gets predictable.
I try to have variety and that’s challenging too because you have to think about in the context of a full set. I have these other songs where everything’s free so I’m going to try to do something maybe where it’s over a structure. And that’s another challenge: how can I use that material to create a structure because I want this one to be a little more structured than the other things?
You’ve made some remarks about how you do a lot of free playing but that you prefer some structure in what you’re doing.
Often I do, yeah—well, definitely in my own bands. I like to do both but, yeah, in my own bands I like to have some structure there.
I’m hearing a little more structure on the new record with Weasel Walter and Peter Evans [Mechanical Malfunction]. Compared to the previous record, there seems to be some real composition on there while maybe there wasn’t any previously.
Yeah, there was no composition on the previous record, so we kind of brought that in just to see what it would sound like.
I like both of those albums, but the composition gives the music something more to hold on to.
Yeah, I think so too. I like having that element there because there is still plenty of improvisation happening.
So I wanted to go back a little bit. You started Suzuki violin starting when you were in second grade?
That’s really young. I’m not that familiar with it but the Suzuki system seems to work. Students seem to progress really quickly.
And reading musical notation is not even part of it for a long time, right?
You know, honestly, I don’t remember because I was so young when I did it and I haven’t really looked through any of the Suzuki books probably since then, so I don’t really remember.
Anyway, you’ve said you didn’t like it.
I guess I liked it for a while. I wasn’t very good at violin. There would be, like, two-level orchestras and I would always be in the lower level. It never kind of really stuck. I would practice and stuff but I didn’t really like playing in orchestras. So I think I wanted to play music but it didn’t seem like it was right fit.
Was the repertoire part of it? Did you not really relate to classical music so much?
I think so. I think that was part of it, yeah.
Did you find that when you switched to guitar that the Suzuki training translated to the fret board?
Oh, definitely. It was just really helpful to have any kind of musical background. But when I first got a guitar, I was teaching myself out of tablature books before I started taking lessons. But it was good because I already knew I could read the notes and I knew the rhythm and I kind of had a sense of how to go about it, even though I didn’t know guitar. And there’s some similarity, you know, it’s vaguely similar to the violin. There was something familiar, so I think I was able to pick it up way easier. I think if I hadn’t played violin I wouldn’t have a clue how to do that on my own.
So then you went to Wesleyan and at first you were a biology major, right? But then you started taking classes with Anthony Braxton and you said that totally changed everything.
Were you familiar with Braxton’s music at the time?
A little bit. The first record I got of his was in high school. I definitely wasn’t familiar with his whole body of work until I got to Wesleyan.
It’s almost impossible to do—
Well, I’m still not (laughs).
The first record I got of Anthony’s actually was a Derek Bailey/Anthony Braxton duo. And I think I got that in high school because I also really liked Derek Bailey so that was kind of my way in. And then, I think the first semester I took a class with him and then I started learning more and more about him.
So what is a class with Anthony Braxton like? I tried to read his books and he can be, um, a little obscure (laughs).
It took me a year to kind of understand the way he speaks because it’s so unique and he basically has his own language for how he explains things. So, at first, it was really exciting but also felt I was taking a foreign language course. It was really a new world for me. He teaches a lot of different classes and I basically just took as many of them as I could. He taught a class on Sun Ra and Stockhausen, which was like a lecture class.
I took one I remember pretty well called the history of the jazz saxophone where he’d just bring in recordings. He’d go to the record store, buy some CDs, and then he’d put them and he’d talk about them and it was amazing just to hear his insight on stuff. Then there was his Large Ensemble class where you would just go and play. You’d read his music and you’d just dive in and be completely lost. And then, you know, gradually start to understand the concepts. That’s how I learned how to sight read. I would take the music from the Large Ensemble back to the practice room and just try to learn it. I worked on that for about a year, just trying to understand how it worked, and I learned so much from playing in that Large Ensemble. I did that every year.
Is that how you wound up joining his working groups?
Yeah, just through time, working with him in many different contexts. Once I became a music major, he was my thesis advisor and I took composition seminars with him and so I just became more involved. There was probably one semester where I was taking three or four classes with him, in my senior year.