Thursday, August 28, 2008

Now Spinning: Mary Halvorson

I'm a firm believer that any signature you develop as a writer – and, I think, particularly as a critical writer – should be implicit. Otherwise, it's sort of akin to giving yourself a nickname a la George Costanza. That stated, one thing I've tried to establish as a critic is to avoid comparing one artist to another. I think this came naturally to me, but I've grown to learn how much most musicians hate it when critics link them stylistically to others. It's often just a sign of lazy thinking, or a sign that the critic feels their reader needs a reference point (writing down to readers is a whole other topic). The practice is especially bad when the critic makes incorrect assumptions – like linking Brad Mehldau to Bill Evans, a pianist Mehldau doesn't particularly admire, let alone take influence from.

Still, it's cool to hear an upcoming musician flash their influences as they find their own voice, or extend the voice they've already developed by the time they first record. I've been enjoying what I've heard from 28-year-old guitarist Mary Halvorson – primarily in the context of Anthony Braxton's bands – and I'm excited to be digging into her new CD, Dragon's Head, on Firehouse 12 Records. A native of Brookline, Massachusetts, she admits to being a Hendrix fanatic in eighth grade (I knew there was a reason I liked her, although our eighth grade obsessions were a few decades apart) and she studied with fellow Bostonian Joe Morris, with whom she shares a love for a flat, dry amplified tone. But, in addition to Hendrix and Morris, Dragon's Head subtly references Dolphy and Monk, as well as more obvious nods to Blood Ulmer, Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock.

There is no shortage of utterly original phrasing and attack, as well, and Halvorson's trio (bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith) complements her extremely well. Hearing her tear through some Hendrix-inspired noise on "Momentary Lapse (No. 1)" put me in mind of saxophonist's James Carter's mind-warping debut on JC On The Set, where he obliquely referenced Charlie Parker and John Coltrane and immediately laid his bona fides at your feet.

In short, a great recording – one that's sure to upset the neighbours if you play it loud. In the best way possible.

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