Mary Halvorson at Bop Shop Records

In this exclusive, I had a pleasant chat with one of jazz's most unique composers and players, guitarist Mary Halvorson.

Mary Halvorson at Bop Shop Records

In this exclusive, I had a pleasant chat with one of jazz’s most unique composers and players, guitarist Mary Halvorson.

Looking at everything you’ve done, switching from violin to guitar because you wanted to be like Hendrix – black and white Stratocaster and all – to the brand of jazz you’ve developed, is it possible that Mary Halvorson has a hidden rebellious streak?

That could be! I had an astrology reading once, and the astrologer took one look at me and said “You’re the person that looks normal that s secret going to blow up the airplane…” I loved it, I thought it was great! I probably laughed at the time.

So when you were developing your sound, were you intentionally trying to do something different?

Actually, when I first started, I wasn’t trying to do anything different, at all. Like you said, I liked guitar, and I liked Hendrix, and I wanted to play rock music. I think what made me want to do something different was my teachers. When I say that I mean my teachers in college, Anthony Braxton and Joe Morris, who were both very different, who were hammering home the point that I should explore, be creative, and do more then just perfect “jazz.”

I really think that’s why. If it weren’t for my teachers, I’m not sure if “A” I would have continued with music in a serious way at all, and “B,” I’m not sure if I would have gone down the path that (I’m on now). Maybe I would have, I don’t know.

For years I was working on – and I still do – foundational stuff. When they were pushing me to do more, that’s why I started exploring more.

Did they just give you the philosophy, or did they guide you through a specific process?

It definitely wasn’t “guiding me through it,” it was more of me learning by example, just seeing what they were doing, and hearing them say “you can’t do that, figure out something else.”

Not to say that I didn’t learn directly from them, because of course I took things directly from them as well, but it was finding that balance of encouraging me to listen to every kind of music, and making sure that everything I listened to was equally valid. Trying to find ways to think of something outside the box.

I think it was more philosophical.

You do think you’ve reached the point where you have a crystallized “Mary Halvorson” sound?

… No. I think if I did, that would be bad. I never want to be somebody that gets to a certain point and says “OK, now I know what my thing is…” What I believe, part of being an artist is to keep growing and exploring. (Another) part of what’s fun about it is not being stagnant, and creating something new. That’s something I think about.

Can you tell us about Stephan Crump, and your collaboration with him, “Secret Keeper?”

Stephan and I met – I knew of him and his playing for many years in New York – but we had never actually met until about five years ago. We met a concert, and we said to each other “We should get together and play sometime,” which people say all the time but don’t really mean it, but we did.

We got together, and Stephan has a home studio in his apartment. We hung out to play casually, but he asked if he could set up a few mics to record what we do, not for any purpose other than to hear it. I agreed, and that ended up being our first record, or some of our first record. We ended up using the first notes we ever played together.

We had a really great report right off the bat. Stephan is one of my favorite bass players. He’s incredibly sensitive and diverse in what he does. Obviously technically and conceptually brilliant, but also melodically, “improvisationally;” he’s such a great listener and such an open player. It’s been great playing in the duo context, having just guitar and bass, you can hear the small details of the instruments, the wood and the strings. It feels really intimate, and that’s one of the things that I enjoy about playing with him.

Since we came out with that first record, we’ve started bringing some compositions to the band. Our second record has compositions. At this point, we have a four or five year history of playing together, and we do a lot of improvisations and compositions, specifically for that project. It’s a lot of fun.

What’s your proportion of compositional material versus improvisation?

I think it really depends on the project. Some projects that I do – although it’s the most common way that I work – but sometimes there will be a project where everything is improvised, and other times I’ll play music that’s highly composed, although it’s very rare that it’ll be through-composed, without no improvisation at all. I hardly ever do that.

Usually it’s somewhere in the middle… One can expect to hear elements of composition and quite a bit of improvising as well.

Moving onto your Rochester concert, how do you know Bop Shop Records owner Tom Kohn?

I guess I know Tom from going to Bop Shop Records over the years.

It’s really amazing, and to have a record store like that in this day and age… It’s such an incredible store, and he’s such a great person, and has so much integrity with what he does.

Over the past ten years, it’s just something you know about. You can go up there when you’re on tour, and then you can spend all your tour money on records… It’s really a wonderful place, and I’m so thankful that it’s there.


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