Interview: Mary Halvorson

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 04.14.11 in Interviews

Just because jazz is a relatively small scene in America doesn’t mean its performers can achieve stardom quickly and easily. It often takes years and years for emerging soloists to develop a voice and, after that, a following. Not so with 30-year-old guitarist Mary Halvorson. After studying in college with Anthony Braxton, she dropped out of the jazz world for almost a decade, opting instead to play in a number of avant-rock groups. With the release of her first album as a jazz leader (2008′s Dragon’s Head), critical consensus solidified quickly around Halvorson – whose playing can be simultaneously lithe and aggressive – naming her a voice to watch. Since that time, she has guested on a dozens of other albums, and issued her first work as leader of a quintet (Saturn Sings) – which landed at the No. 3 spot on the Village Voice’s 2010 jazz poll.

eMusic’s Seth Colter Walls sat down with Halvorson at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, after the guitarist’s most recent tour of France.

When you meet someone who’s unfamiliar with your work, what kind of music do you say you play? Jazz with a noise-rock influence? Avant-garde skronk that swings?

If it’s somebody that I don’t know at all – and if they see I have a guitar and ask me, “What do you play?” – I say jazz, because that’s probably the closest thing I can think of.

What if it’s someone who seems generally unwilling to give jazz a chance?

[Laughs] I guess I never think of that! Maybe I should. I guess sometimes I’ll say: I play jazz; I play rock; I play more experimental types of music. But it is hard to explain what it is. The other question I get a lot is, “Oh, do you play in a band?” And I’m like, “Well, I play in like 50 bands,” but that doesn’t really make sense to most people.

I’m not in that rock world, where you’re in one band and you rehearse five times a week. It’s definitely more scattered than that, which I think is more coming from the way jazz tends to work. I can play other people’s music, and I can do some projects that are all improvised – and I have my own project.

You’ve played on lots of great records over the last couple years. I particularly liked the Tomas Fujiwara record, Actionspeak, and your new improvised session with drummer Weasel Walter and trumpeter Peter Evans, Electric Fruit. How does your approach vary from ensemble to ensemble?

One thing I try to do is figure out what the goal is for the music. With Tomas’s band I was playing in a more jazz-guitary kind way, because I thought that’s what he wanted. But then he said “no, I want you to play totally crazier.” And then I adjusted.

That’s interesting, because his music does feel more “composed” in a Second Miles Quintet kind of way.

Wait till you hear his next one. It’s gotten crazy. His composing has departed from that direction.

And how about Electric Fruit?

Weasel is the one who’s taken the lead on putting the thing together. I’ve actually known Peter since we were teenagers, since we both grew up in suburban Boston and we both used to do jazz gigs together in college. He plays in that band Mostly Other People Do the Killing. And he’s also a virtuoso classical player; even when we were teenagers, he was scary.

I think there’s some similarity to approach, instinctually, that makes it an interesting record. It’s a lot of notes. It’s very frantic.

You also established your own voice really quickly, with your first CD as a leader (Dragon’s Head), and then your follow up (Saturn Sings). Was the speed of your success at all a shock?

It definitely has been a surprise to me! Because I don’t consider them the most accessible records, so I was really happy that people were listening. I don’t really expect that with anything I do. It’s nice if it happens; but I’m not catering anything towards producing … something listenable. [laughs]

When describing Saturn Sings, you cited a crazily diverse roster of influences.

I know I said Sam Cooke. Take the example of the Soul Stirrers – those four a cappella voices doing all this crazy stuff, and it’s really rhythmic and it has these really rich harmonies – sometimes I’ll take something like that which is an influence outside of jazz, and try and translate that into a different situation.

That Soul Stirrers stuff, though; it’s so awesome. There’s an album called Jesus Gave Me Water, which is really good. I’m not religious – not at all – but I do enjoy that.

And then there are songs like “Sea Seizure,” which operate more in an indie rock language.

There I’m taking a rock influence but trying to fit it into the context of the trio without it sounding out of place. I don’t want it to sound like, “Oh now here’s the rock moment.” I don’t want it to sound like a collage – even though certain sections obviously do sound more influenced by certain genres.

It’s funny, the drummer Ches Smith calls that song “the Deerhoof song.” Which is funny, because I do love Deerhoof, but I wasn’t in any way thinking about that specifically when I wrote “Sea Seizure.” But so maybe that’s something that seeped in.

You’ve also played with Lee Ranaldo and Vernon Reid on that recording of Christian Marclay‘s Graffiti Composition.

It was really cool for me to get to play with those guys. I like experiences like that – working with people outside my circle of usual suspects. When I was playing in Trevor Dunn’s trio, in 2004, we did a tour for a month opening up for the Melvins. Which was totally eye-opening.

You must have a Buzz [Osborne, of the Melvins] story.

Hah! With Buzz, every time we stop in a gas station people would ask him if that was really his hair. And he would say, “Nope, it’s not even my real head.” But listening to [the Melvins] was so valuable.

You also revere some classical composers, as well.

The ones I was thinking about while writing for Saturn Sings were [Alexander] Scriabin and [Dmitri] Shostakovich. Especially the Scriabin piano music – he has all these solo piano pieces that are amazing. I like how the harmonies – they’re kind of what I was thinking about with the Shostakovich string quartets – they’re really harmonic and beautiful but they’re slightly out there, too. I really like that.

Sometimes I’ll try that: Write something pretty and normal, like a chord progression, and then turn one thing so it’s like, “What the hell is that?”

And you know, there’s so much good music everywhere. I don’t think like this little genre of jazz that I’m doing is the best. And I very well might change what I’m doing genre-wise; I don’t have any allegiance to anything.