Guitarist Mary Halvorson is one of the most prolific artists on the current jazz/improv scene; she’s appeared on 65 albums since 2003, including several as a leader (she has a trio with bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith, to which she adds horn players—trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonists Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock, trombonist Jacob Garchik—to make a quintet or a septet). She’s been a member of groups led by Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum, Trevor Dunn, Mike Reed, Marc Ribot, and many others, and participated in more improvisatory contexts with, it seems, half of New York’s avant-music community. Now, she’s releasing her first solo album, Meltframe, on the Firehouse 12 label. (Pre-order it on Bandcamp.)
The album contains 10 versions of pieces Halvorson likes. Some are relatively well-known jazz tunes like Oliver Nelson‘s “Cascades,” Ornette Coleman‘s “Sadness” and Duke Ellington‘s “Solitude,” while others are by her contemporaries, including drummer Tomas Fujiwara, bassist Chris Lightcap and fellow guitarist Noël Akchoté. They vary from hard-rock riff-fests to desolate pools of melancholy, subtle effects warping the guitar’s sound without ever diving all the way into Keiji Haino-esque noise eruptions or subduing it until it becomes typical “jazz guitar” naptime music.
Stream Halvorson’s version of Lightcap’s “Platform” below:
Halvorson answered a few questions about the album via email.
I’ve read that this album began to come together after some shows opening for King Buzzo of the Melvins. What were those shows like, both in terms of what you were performing and the audience’s response?
The shows were very intense for me. Before the tour with King Buzzo I had only ever done three solo performances. I had been working on solo material for a few years and knew I wanted to do an album, so I figured that performing the material every night for a week straight would be a great way to dive in. King Buzzo and the Melvins‘ music are very important to me and I was extremely excited about the opportunity to open for Buzz. His solo set is absolutely mindblowing; relentless and powerful and intense. That served as great inspiration, even though my solo set is very different from Buzz’s in style and energy. It was also a fun challenge to play for a new audience night after night. I’m sure plenty of people did not relate to what I was doing, but I did manage to draw some of the crowd in and hopefully expose a few of them to music they hadn’t heard before, which made it all worthwhile: overall, a great experience and one I won’t forget.
How did the album change from initial concept (“I should make a solo album”) to finished product? What material was considered and rejected, etc.?
At first I was considering an album mostly made up of standards (Ellington, Monk, Churchill, etc.) deconstructed and interpreted in my own way. But as the concept evolved I started adding other types of songs to the mix as well; for example, lesser-known compositions by Carla Bley and Noël Akchoté, and tunes by contemporaries of mine (Chris Lightcap and Tomas Fujiwara). Basically, the evolved concept was: any tune I love and that I didn’t write is fair game. Early on I was working with a few Thelonious Monk compositions, and although I still perform those in my live sets, they did not make it onto the album. I am still adding more tunes to the repertoire as I go.
A lot of these pieces were probably not originally written on, or for, guitar. What did you have to do to them to make them work as solo guitar pieces?
It was mostly a process of trial and error. When I was arranging the pieces I tried to think as much about variety and balance as possible; it was important to me to avoid taking the same approach for each piece. Some of the compositions I’d play pretty straight, others I’d deconstruct or abandon, or create new arrangements and/or harmonies.
Some of the tracks seem to have effects added after the fact, like the sounds of tape running back and forth, or small cymbal crashes. Was that done live in the moment, or added afterward?
All the tracks were recorded as full takes with no overdubs. So the effects you hear were done in the moment, using the gear mentioned below.
What gear did you use on this record?
I used my Guild Artist Award guitar from 1970, my 1966 Fender Princeton Reverb amplifier (it has a spectacular tremolo which I used on the track “Solitude”), a Line 6 delay pedal with a Mission Engineering expression pedal, a Rat distortion pedal, and a Dunlop X volume pedal.
Can you talk in some detail about the track “Platform”? Why did you choose this piece, and how did you arrive at your interpretation of it?
My main criteria for choosing the compositions was simple: songs I like (particularly ones which get stuck in my head), and songs which I could visualize being done as solo guitar pieces in an interesting way. “Platform” was one of those songs. I have always been a fan of Chris Lightcap‘s composing, and “Platform” was my favorite track from his Clean Feed album Deluxe (get it from Amazon). I was listening to that tune one day and I started hearing it as a loud, driven, power chord-heavy guitar track. I asked Chris for the chart and started playing through it, thinking of ways to arrange it. I mostly worked with the piano part, but also added elements of the horn parts. It’s arranged very differently from the original, separating the left and right hand of the piano and using sections of the solo form, though not the entire solo form (actually, most of the solo section is freely improvised). I also slowed down the tempo because I felt it sat better on guitar—and achieved the energy I was looking for—when played slightly slower.