Mary Halvorson interview: “I can feel how the flow of a basketball game can be analogous with music”

Andy Robson
Tuesday, February 20, 2024

One of the most gifted – and exciting – guitarists of her generation, Mary Halvorson is back with a thrilling new album that pays tribute to two undersung musical heroes and explores the mysteries of Tarot cards

Mary Halvorson (photo: Michael Wilson)
Mary Halvorson (photo: Michael Wilson)

Oh, clouds unfold! Mary Halvorson doesn’t laugh often, but when she does it’s like sunshine on a rainy day.

“I’d never thought of that, that’s so funny!” she laughs, and the head rocks back, the eyes sparkle. What’s tickled her is the notion that she must be among the few artists to embrace Johnny Smith and Elliott Smith.

The former, of course, is one of the great, largely unsung, jazz guitarists; the latter a singer-songwriter much revered by those who love him, but relegated to the realms of tragic obscurity.

It would be foolish to seek parallels between Halvorson and either Smith. Yet Elliott in performance would wrap himself round his guitar, long hair falling across his face, much as Halvorson does, apparently shy and inward.

“Johnny Smith is totally under-recognised... it was like he was an influence on me I never knew”

Elliott’s songs often trace his challenges with addiction, their sweet melodies hiding the darkest insights: Halvorson too is fascinated by the poison within the beauty, as epitomised in Belladonna, 2022’s release with the Mivos Quartet, the darkling counterpoint to Amaryllis, Belladonna’s sister release.

Halvorson’s personality may not be ‘addictive’ but she talks of ‘obsession’.

“But that’s my personality. Once I get into something I get totally fixated and do a deep dive,” the guitarist-composer explains, again with a smile. This covers her discovery of Robert Wyatt during a period of emotional turbulence,
“I must have played Robert's Rock Bottom hundreds of times,” or her continued fascination with the music and teachings of Antony Braxton.

One quality Halvorson and both Smiths share, is an affection for popular song. None see a hierarchy between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Elliott would rage that he couldn’t write a perfect ‘Elton John’ song yet was passionate about Rachmaninov; Johnny, not least with ‘Moonlight in Vermont’, invested standards with the most original of lines and rich chordings. Halvorson, whose had her own punk and pop phases, reveals on her new album, Cloudward, the facility to explore the ‘outness’ of an Anthony Braxton (himself an avowed Bill Haley fan) with a spectacular capacity to rock out as befits the girl who discovered Hendrix in her 7th Grade.

Mary Halvorson (photo: Michael Wilson)

Mary Halvorson (photo: Michael Wilson)

Halvorson continues, “Johnny Smith is totally under-recognised. I didn’t find out about him until my late 20s. It was almost like he was an influence that I never knew,” and she smiles at the paradox. “He’s everything that I love about jazz guitar.”

Another of Halvorson’s serial collaborators, Bill Frisell, has a similar feel for Smith, “And he actually studied with Smith in Colorado. It’s his attack, the way he digs in, and the types of lines he plays. It’s very ‘out’, although in a very contained context.”

Which could describe much of the composer’s work. Halvorson and Frisell’s respect for Smith is beautifully documented on The Maid With The Flaxen Hair – A Tribute To Johnny Smith (Tzadik). And Smith is no doubt channelled as Halvorson plays a Guild Award guitar, which was developed originally by Smith.

“It’s totally crazy, his chordal shapes. It’s like when you meet some people, and it’s like ‘How did I not know you before?”

Halvorson had a similar intuitive vibe when assembling the sextet for Amaryllis that remains the band for Cloudward.

“It felt like a band straight away,” she avows, although the band only had a few rehearsal days before hitting the studio.

Yet the genesis of Cloudward could hardly be more different. Where Amaryllis and Belladonna were composed in the isolating grip of Covid lockdowns, the music for Cloudward “…was written in the Fall of 2022. It was a period of optimism. Tours were happening, planes were flying, everything was going, well, cloudward!

“I particularly enjoy writing second albums for a band. With a band’s first album you don’t totally know what the band’s going to sound like. It can be exciting because it’s wide open. But once you know the band, then it’s fun to write for it because you can envision the band’s sound. You can think, ‘What can I do different this time? What can I push in a new direction? What do can I do better?

“The big difference between the first and second album is that we did a whole tour before recording which is ideal. I was lucky with the first recording because it sounded like a band from the beginning, a feeling I don’t always get! But when we went into the studio this time, we had a whole history as a band. We’d been able to work out the new music while touring Amaryllis. So, we’d had the opportunity to explore different textures, different sounds.”

There was a change in composition style too.

“When I have so many instruments available to me, I tend to over-write. There were passages (on Amaryllis) where everybody was playing all the time. But now I wanted to know how it would be if just two instruments played in this place or that. I wanted to have a little more breath in the music.

“Having total trust in the musicians, I could leave decisions up to them. I did that a little on the first album, but I really didn’t want to dictate who solos where. I might say: ‘There’s a solo here’ and someone would jump into the slot. I love stuff like that, giving up control and watching how different people change the music. That’s really cool.”

Mary Halvorson (photo: Michael Wilson)

Mary Halvorson (photo: Michael Wilson)

But the studio is not the live experience. And the music shape shifted in the studio. Halvorson loves to “embrace the studio thing. I like that you can really focus on the details and get all the sounds as you want them. In the studio, I do take control. Especially as I want to be sure everyone is represented. So, I dictate more. I like to lean into the fact that I can create this more perfect thing. And that’s cool!”

The only issue was, “The running order. I will tell you I obsessed over the order. I never had such a hard time choosing an order! Because it’s on vinyl, it had to be same length both sides, I went through about 10 different orders. I’m normally so decisive: but not this time!”

Maybe she could have used her skills in astrology and Tarot to decide. Maybe she did. On Cloudward the opening cuts ‘The Gateway’ and ‘The Tower’ refer directly to the Tarot. ‘The Gateway’, not a card itself, captures the spirit of optimism the composer felt kicking off Cloudward, about discovering a pathway into fresh creativity. In contrast ‘The Tower’ denotes “a time of total upheaval in order for something new to come out of it.”

It’s an image TS Eliot returned to in his epic poem The Waste Land. And as a New York resident the image of the Falling Towers, even subconsciously, can’t help but be a part of Halvorson’s creative iconography.

Yet it’s also an image of hope.

“I like the idea of ‘The Tower’ as a metaphor for what a lot of people went through during Covid, this total breaking down that you need to go through to think about what is and isn’t working so you can start building afresh again.”

It’s not the first time Halvorson has cited systems of divination. On Code Girl’s ‘Artlessly Falling’ her poem cites the The Fool and other cards. Artists have always explored different paths into creativity. Jim Morrison passed through Blake’s 'Doors of Perception', Ray Russell cites the I Ching on 'Dragon Hill', Holst was a committed astrologist (oh! The Planets!) and Halvorson notes Dali created his own Tarot deck. Sylvie Courvoisier, another collaborator with whom Halvorson has recently finished a European door, channels Odilon Redon’s symbolism on the exquisite 'Chimaera'.

“It’s funny, I’ve always been interested in this kind of thing, certainly since college. The Tarot is a more recent thing. I’ve always been drawn to the images. I love those pictorial representations particularly in the classic deck. You know it’s not easy to talk about this, people roll their eyes and get very judgmental about it, but I find this stuff fun.”

It’s intriguing as Halvorson is deeply rational and highly organised, believing she was going to be a research scientist until taking classes with Braxton at college. Perhaps it’s another way of accessing creative depths, as could be her playing right-handed although she’s left-handed.

“I liked that all that the aces have a hand coming out of a cloud. So, the Ace of Cups has a hand holding a cup coming from a cloud, or another ace has a hand emerging holding a sword. I just like the idea of a hand offering you something from out of a cloud!”

And given this feature is being written on William Blake’s birthday, it’s hard not to relate to his images of cloudborne entities, not the least The Ancient of Days, which Duncan Heining used for his book cover for And Did those Feet?...

“It wasn’t like Tarot was directly influencing what I was writing,” explains Halvorson, “but it was all part of what I was thinking about at the time. Whatever happens in your life will seep into your music. I almost never base my music on specific things, it's more intuitive than that.

“I mean, I watch a lot of NBA basketball, a totally different hobby. But I can feel how the flow of a basketball game can be analogous with music. If you think of a (sports) team you may see a team that’s full of superstars, but they just can’t get along. Then you’ll see a team that doesn’t have stars but they get along with each other, just like a band. I was really upset in the summer because my team, the Boston Celtics, traded away my favourite player Marcus Smart. I was very sad, and I didn’t know why they did it, but they got two new players and now the team’s doing well. A team, a band, can’t always be built around stars no matter how much you love them.”

And without being too corny, what’s in the cards for Halvorson? She laughs again.

“I’m in the middle of writing more music for Amaryllis. I so haven’t exhausted the possibilities with that band. I’m writing for four saxophones: I really like a bunch of horns!”

There will also be guests, as hinted on Cloudward where Laurie Anderson appears on the free exploration, ‘Incarnadine’.

“We’ll be touring Cloudward in Europe in January, the US in February and we will include new music just as we did when touring the first album. We’ve recorded again with Thumbscrew (the powerhouse trio with Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara), for release in the Fall.”

So all that optimism is bearing fruit, including a new sense of work life balance.

“I had to learn that just from getting burned out. Now saying ‘No’ is my default. I’ll say no to things I want to do! It’s hard. When I know I don’t have time to write and compose, I know it’s too much.”

The only cloud on the horizon is this year’s Presidential election.

“Which I’m absolutely dreading. No one thought he’d get in last time, but he did. It would not shock me.”

No one laughs this time.

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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