Ahead of the Code Girl appearance in Birmingham recently Mary Halvorson chewed the fat with marlbank to give us the skinny on an upcoming collaboration with John Dieterich of Deerhoof as well as expressing her love for the music of Robert Wyatt.
Speaking from Brooklyn at lunchtime, “I am a late starter,” says the guitarist-composer-bandleader, “just catching up on work and about to practise”. She explains that she does as much of the latter when she can schedule it as possible. That however cannot be easy given how busy a player she is in New York, further afield in America – and journeying to Europe.
Asked how she got into music in the first place and why, she says: “It wasn’t obvious. I started playing violin at seven years old. My friends were doing it but I never took to it and then I discovered Jimi Hendrix who was cool.”
Guitar became the thing itself. Later, and “gradually”, her love of jazz began to develop as she immersed herself in Coltrane, Miles and Monk. “I really enjoy learning standards,” she says, and in her own remarkable compositions which are unlike anything that you may ever have heard – and which involve a riot of fracture, the free form cry of the blues as well as adventures in timbre, detunery, and space – a yearning for a strong sense of melody that derives and she detects in “so many standards” can be discerned. I ask her about the architecture, the structure of the songs and how she connects to it. Her answer leans towards the “variety” that standards instil in her.
Mary discovered the music of Robert Wyatt in a moment of revelation when she heard Rock Bottom “sitting on the floor in my living room in front of the stereo. It was the first record of his that I heard and to this day is my favourite.” She isolates her reason for liking the great singer-songwriter and former drummer with Soft Machine because of that “emotion”. She adds: “Just everything is unique about him. Something genuine just hit me.” In 2013 on Illusionary Sea her album included new material and a tribute to Wyatt, the first cover to appear on any of the avant garde guitarist’s albums as leader at that time. Halvorson on Illusionary Sea followed advice taken from Anthony Braxton to extend her ensemble and the Wyatt tribute was an arrangement of the source for ‘Maryan’ (‘Nairam’ by Philip Catherine), which had appeared on Wyatt’s 1997 album, Shleep, 23 years on from Rock Bottom.
Halvorson, who I think it is true to say is a guitar innovator of the first rank and the first to come along in a long while (for me only Miles Okazaki and Lionel Loueke can be spoken of in such a way from the younger generation of players to have followed in the wake of masters such as Bill Frisell [who Halvorson has played with so thrillingly], Pat Metheny and John Scofield) has a fine group called Code Girl which features some very imaginative writing and also her lyrics for voice.
A word on the Code Girl line-up, Ambrose Akinmusire will not be appearing in Birmingham although the rest of the personnel is the same as the excellent record of the same name: Halvorson joined by Amirtha Kidambi, vocals; Maria Grand, saxophone, vocals; Adam (son of the great Arturo) O’Farrill, trumpet; Michael Formanek, bass; Tomas Fujiwara, drums.
Halvorson also has a new project which will be of huge interest to the many followers of Deerhoof out there which is a two guitar duel with John Dieterich. Mary says she knows John “through mutual friends” and “admired his approach”. Asked in 2017 at the Music Unlimited Festival in Wels to come up with something new she thought of Dieterich. Their collaboration to be issued as an album and titled as a tangle of stars, is available in late-October and spans experimental jazz, pop, rock, noise, and improvisation. Form a disorderly queue.
Dieterich is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a long way from Brooklyn. Halvorson says she enjoyed their collaboration together “it was really cool”. As for other projects recently in the Jazz Gallery back in New York she appeared with the composer-cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum whose 9-tette record The Ambiguity Manifesto is released by Firehouse 12 Records today. Bynum exudes an affinity to the later more recent avant side of Alex Bonney in terms of tonal adventure, gradation of texture and metre erased in the shavings and shaping of an acoustic canopy. Mary explains that the music is written in “modular sections” and Taylor cues rather than conducts the ensemble. As the brief interview draws to a close she tells me that she will be travelling to Birmingham with her trusty Flip Scipio custom made guitar.