Accompanied by bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith, Halvorson immediately reveals herself as an enticing new voice on Dragon's Head. As she writes in brief liner notes, she's interested in exploring both the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of the guitar, and in composing music that provides both structure and improvisational freedom to specific bandmates. In an interesting turn, she has numbered the 10 compositions on her CD to reflect the order in which they were written. "Old Nine Two Six Four Two Dies" – the final piece composed but the first on the recording – has a stealthy bassline as its centrepiece, an ideal accompaniment for Halvorson's lead, which also follows a deliberate course, with occasional stutters or shifts in direction. Her relatively unadorned tone is contrasted with phrase-ending tonal bends – a device she employs at several junctures on Dragon's Head. Overall, her writing often hands the lead role to the bass, leaving the guitar to ornament and expand on the theme, and she has an obvious love for interacting with her drummer.
Performing Braxton's music, Halvorson's textural characteristics and off-kilter phrasing really come to the fore. Quartet (Moscow) 2008 could hardly be more textured, in fact, combining Braxton's multiple horns with Taylor Ho Bynum's rich array of brass instruments and bassoonist Katherine Young in addition to Halvorson. Consisting of one 70-minute piece (Braxton's "Composition 367B") and a brief encore, the recording provides Halvorson with a wide range of sonic possibilities – from a dull, almost-toneless chunk rhythm that sounds like an axe hitting punky wood to an ear-catching spectral burst at about the 28-minute point that provides an effective bridge from a sax/trumpet duet to a brief bassoon interlude, which in turn gives way to a superb blending of elements. This may be my favourite Braxton disc from recent years.
I want to keep hearing Halvorson in more settings because her phrasing and harmonic conception are so distinctive that I'm not sure I've heard her entire range yet. If you haven't had the pleasure of catching her, here's a taste from a recent performance.
Just 28, Halvorson seems totally unbound from traditional approaches to guitar at times – although she admits that her first song was the ubiquitous "Stairway To Heaven" – yet not in a deliberately genre-smashing way. Rather, she seems more like someone who has found her own way to self-expression without consciously breaking barriers. There's a guitar-geek video interview on her web site where she talks casually about loving the sound a shorted-out volume knob on her Epiphone hollow-body made until some well-intentioned guitar tech fixed it for her. The same interview also includes a few examples of the fractured-sounding chords she sometimes employs.
I also love Halvorson's playing because she is not afraid to confound your conceptions of her work. Just when you think you have her pegged for her flat, dry amplifier tone – reminiscent of her former teacher Joe Morris – she throws something at you like the amplifier histrionics on "Momentary Lapse".
"I think of myself as a guitar player," she told jazz journalist Steve Dollar in an interview that's posted on her site. "I'm not really concerned whether something is rock or jazz. I just want to play something that's interesting to me."
Judging by even the relatively narrow range of projects I've heard so far, her interests are exceptionally broad.
Beyond the excitement her fresh-sounding playing brings, it's heartening to see that she's getting her share of high-profile gigs with musicians who will force her to stretch even further. In addition to the exposure she's getting with Braxton, she recently joined pianist Myra Melford in New York City for a double bill with Henry Threadgill. Reports from both my critical colleague Howard Mandel and Ms. Melford herself make me wish I had heard that outing. Melford's music is some of the most demanding stuff around these days, and Mandel said Halvorson nailed it.
All of which makes Mary Halvorson my early choice for artist of the year and an absolute pick for someone to listen for in the future.