Early in 2018, Mary Halvorson revealed the secrets to her productivity in an interview with The Creative Independent: She’s learned how to turn down some projects in order to take on dream gigs, she said, and she’s learned how to binge-sleep, turning little windows of downtime into restorative sessions of shut-eye. In 2018, she’s needed it.
Halvorson has a habit of staying busy, propelled no doubt by a reputation for rewriting the rules of jazz guitar in real time; the last decade of her discography is a whirlwind of her own bands and assorted combos, one-off collaborations and session work. Her run during that term has been one of music’s most impressive in memory. When she arrived at Big Ears 2018 to play in Bangs, her trio with Jason Moran and Ron Miles, she had just stepped off a plane from an extended European tour with her bracing new quintet, Code Girl. This year, in fact, has felt different, with Halvorson not only emerging as a bandleader, composer, and arranger with a bigger vision than anticipated but also as a soloist and guest whose touch and tone are recognizable the moment they hit the mix.
You can hear that second quality so clearly on Contemporary Chaos Practices, the two-piece album by composer Ingrid Luabrock. After a triumphant percussive jolt and a brief fanfare at the start, Halvorson steps into silence, her guitar shaping the alien framework around which the orchestra begins to rise. It is a moment of lucid surrealism, vivid in sound but so wondrously alien in shape. Or there’s that stunted chord that opens “Sing Unborn,” the haunted ballad near the end of María Grand’s immersive Magdalena. The skeleton beneath Grand’s soft, swooping voice, Halvorson is restrained here, supporting a song that’s very much about acts of aegis even when they seem impossible. She lets her notes rumble through the rests, decaying so as to cloud the meaning ever so slightly. And when her guitar wafts in during her interpretation of “With a Little Help From my Friends” for a new full-length cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by rising jazz stars, it feels like the arrival of an old pal, stopping by to share some new joy.
But Code Girl, released at the end of March, feels like the real breakthrough. Halvorson sidestepped expectations by writing lyrics and building an astounding band to deliver and animate them—the trumpet extraordinaire Ambrose Akinmusire, the top-line rhythm section of bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and captivating singer Amirtha Kidambi. These 11 songs feel somehow protean but meticulous, as if they are tests of the very nature of written and recorded language. Kidambi (who performs at Big Ears 2019 with her own Elder Ones) puts on one of the year’s best vocal clinics, her luminous voice pulling and pushing the quintet above and below. This epic is a clear next direction for Halvorson, but it is unmistakably her, from the prismatic guitar spirals at the start of opener “My Mind I Find in Time” to the twisting and chiming solo she swivels through during “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon.” By letting her vision expand into something larger, we’ve learned more about Halvorson’s internal ideas of harmony and rhythm and order—qualities that are creating a singular new catalog in our own time.
Those sensibilities thread together three very different side projects, all issued by Halvorson this year. With the trio Thumbscrew, where Halvorson joins the rhythm section of Code Girl, she released Theirs and Ours, oppositional but complementary sets where she and the trio played their own tunes or a surprising set of covers. At every turn, from pretty ballads to elliptical gazes, her guitar is the wire that runs through it all.
Then, at John Zorn’s request, she and an inspiration Bill Frisell reworked 10 tunes by silvery guitar god Johnny Smith. It is a true composite, their distinct styles gilding the other on a time-teasing turn through “Scarlet Ribbons for Her Hair” or a melody-spiking jaunt with his hit, “Walk Don’t Run.” Even while playing an 18-string harp guitar or an antique banjo on Seed Triangular, an eclectic and spirited collaboration with historic wind-instrument ace Robbie Lee, Halvorson’s playing affirms her own vernacular, an idiom which others can increasingly share.
We know that 2019 involves a return to Big Ears for Halvorson—and, most likely, some sleep binges. Beyond that, we’re eager to listen and learn.