Mary Halvorson’s name has been appearing alongside phrases like “the future of jazz” for a few years now, but especially since her most recent outing as a bandleader last fall with the album Saturn Sings (which made dozens of critic’s top 10 lists). And you should believe the hype — her clear, spikey guitar style is adventurous and surprising, but is held together by an internal melodic logic that you sense from the first phrase.
But even if the jazz world (or some faction of it) has fallen for Halvorson, her own relationship to the genre is far from monogamous. While she was a student of jazz from a very early age, it was only after an eight-year break from the end of her formal jazz education that she was able to to pursue a career in the genre. In addition, her current projects include everything from avant-garde improv combos to rock bands. Where she ends up in the future is anyone’s guess, but it should be an interesting ride.
Halvorson talked to At Length about the success of her quintet on Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12), her new trio record with Weasel Walter and Peter Evans, called Electric Fruit (Thirsty Ear Recordings), and how the alignment of the planets and the misalignment of the jazz both play a role in her music.
At Length: So how did the trio for the new record come together?
Mary Halvorson: I met Weasel a few years ago, when he was still living at San Francisco. A couple of our bands shared a bill when we met and thought it would be fun to play together. So we eventually just started playing duo and actually released a duo CD. And I guess we both heard Peter somewhere and totally freaked out. [Laughs] Understandably.
AL: I can imagine.
MH: Weasel wanted to do something with Peter so we thought that would make a fun trio. And actually Peter is somebody I’ve known since high school.
AL: Oh, wow.
MH: We didn’t go to the same high school but we both grew up in Suburban Boston and we did these jazz programs together for high school students, and we used to play jazz gigs together in college at restaurants, which was sort of like our summer job. [Laughs]
So I’ve known Peter a long time, but haven’t had too many chances to connect with him musically recently. So we thought it would be fun to put that together.
AL: It’s interesting, when I bought a digital copy of the record off of Amazon, the metadata just lists you as the artist. It didn’t really seem from any of the other packaging that anybody was listed as a specific band leader, but it made me wonder. Is there a specific band leader? Or was it more of a group improv effort?
MH: No there isn’t. Yeah, it’s a group effort. Actually that’s really annoying. That’s actually happened to me a few times. I think people don’t know what to do with collectives, like they don’t know how to list it, and I have had the experience to where people just decide that it’s one person’s band.
MH: So sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s somebody else. There have been times where I’ve explicitly told somebody, “this is not my band,” and then it still somehow gets listed like that so, that’s unfortunate. But this trio is not my band; it’s a collective project.
AL: It’s so much the dominant paradigm, especially in rock and pop, where you have just one proper noun to put in that artist category. People just don’t get the whole jazz thing.
MH: [Laughs] Exactly. It’s the truth.
AL: Aside from being a fan of Weasel Walter since his work with the Flying Luttenbachers, one of the things I really like about this record is the bent note sound you get out of your guitar, which reminded me of tape effects or musique concrete. How did you go about developing your sonic palette in that direction?
MH: It’s actually a Line 6 delay pedal that I get that sound out of. I found it by accident about 10 years ago. I was playing around with the pedal and I found that I could get it to make that sound. So it’s something I’ve used ever since, but I like to use other effects — something that sounds like a whammy bar or a pitch shifter, but it’s not. So I want to kind of develop that and use it. I mean I’m not a huge effects person. I don’t have a ton of effects, and I don’t really know a ton about effects, [laughs] so I just have a couple of things that I do and I stick to them.
MH: So, yeah, I really like that pedal, the Line 6 delay. It’s also cool because every guitar player has it and everyone does something different with it.
AL: Talking about whammy bars and effects pedals, it’s hard not to think of electric guitar as a rock and roll instrument. So many guitarists have explored the sound of the instrument in a rock context, and I was curious how much the work of those rock stylists has effected your style.
MH: Definitely a lot. My first guitar inspiration was Jimmy Hendrix when I was a kid. That’s kind of why I started playing so I guess I had a rock influence in mind before I had any kind of jazz guitar influence, although I did end up studying jazz guitar and not rock. But I love all sorts of playing, and actually I think I kind of like rock guitar more than jazz guitar. [Laughs] So I definitely am influenced by that.
AL: Do you have any personal favorites who are playing right now?
MH: I really love John Dieterich from the band Deerhoof.
AL: Oh yeah, they’re great.
MH: And I love Mick Barr from Orthrelm. Those are the two that are really coming to mind.
AL: They’re both fantastic. Deerhoof in particular is just such a great sounding band.
MH: Yeah. I’ve been a fan of Deerhoof for years. I really love that band.
AL: You know, speaking of rock bands, you have been a part of a rock combo – People – with one of my favorite drummers, Kevin Shea. Storm and Stress was my jam back in the day.
MH: Oh, yeah. Totally. That was a great band.
AL: I was really excited to see on your website that you have a new People record listed as an upcoming release. Is that happening anytime soon?
MH: You know actually we just found out. It’s just been an unfortunate situation. We recorded the record… it must’ve been early 2009. We’ve just been sitting on it because we had 2 labels that said they were going to put it out and either folded or decided against it after kind of stringing us along for a while.
MH: It’s ended up with the original label which released our first two records. They haven’t been doing much but then they just decided to get it going again recently. So I think we’re going to put it out on the same label, I and Ear Records. Hopefully it will be released in 2011.
AL: Oh excellent! I can’t wait to hear it.
MH: It feels kind of old at this point. [Laughs]
AL: I’m sure.
MH: But I really like that record. We added a bass player also to the band and Peter Evans actually wrote some horn arrangements on it. So it should be pretty different from the other two I think.
AL: That sounds great. Talking about the horn arrangements, that was a real addition to your sound on “Saturn Sings,” your quintet record that made such a splash last year, giving your existing trio a much fuller feel. That record got so much attention, appearing on so many best of lists, including placing third on the Village Voice’s jazz list. I know that “jazz fame” is almost an oxymoronic phrase…
MH: [Laughs] Yeah.
AL: …but how do you feel about the success of this? It got a lot of attention.
MH: Honestly, I was really surprised. I wasn’t really expecting that. But I’m really happy about it. It’s a really great feeling to, you know, have your music be heard. [Laughs]
AL: Do you feel like it opens the doors to you in a way? Do you feel like there are echelons of jazz? I know that jazz records don’t actually sell a lot of copies, but certainly somebody who gets a lot of critical attention is going to be more likely to be released by some of the bigger labels.
MH: Right. Actually with the label thing, it’s interesting. I feel like so many people are putting out their own music and even choosing to put out their own musical work with smaller independent labels instead of larger labels.
MH: I’ve got a label I’m working with on the trio record and the quintet record – Firehouse 12 – and I really love working with them. But even if I did have an opportunity to work with a “larger label” I don’t know that I would.
AL: And in this day and age there seem to be so many artists like Radiohead who are at the top of the game leaving the big labels and doing something entirely different.
MH: Exactly. I think it’s interesting. I don’t know that I want to put out my own stuff because it’s just so much work, but then also you’re really in control of the music. I’m sure there are advantages to both but in my case I really like working with the labels that I am currently working with. So pretty likely I think I will stick with that.
AL: One label that you also seem to be stuck with is ‘jazz guitarist.’ A lot of musicians who work in experimental or avant garde music of any sort seem to get labeled jazz by default.
AL: Does genre matter to you? Do you consider yourself a jazz guitarist or something else?
MH: Genre doesn’t matter to me, but I guess I do consider myself a jazz guitarist because that’s the music I studied, the music I grew up with. I think probably most of my music is more influenced by jazz than it is by other types of music, although it is influenced by a lot of types of music.
MH: So I think if it would have to be put in a category, I probably would consider it jazz. But at the same time that might not be true in ten years. I’m not interested in being a “jazz musician,” I’m just interested in doing whatever music I feel is relevant and exciting. I could definitely change, I could start doing something entirely different and so I guess it doesn’t really matter to me. I think at the moment I probably would say it’s more in one category than any other, but then again it’s such a weird thing to have a label like that. I’m sure there are lot of people that would say it’s definitely not jazz.
AL: People make comments all the time about what is and isn’t jazz. Jazz seems to be one of those genres where the critical body and the fan community seem to be so sharply divided between classical purists and modern innovators.
AL: It seems like a lot of artists just won’t satisfy both camps no matter what they do.
MH: That’s why I really appreciate it when there are people that don’t really take notice of the other side. Someone like Jon Irabagon is a great example of someone who really can function in both of those worlds.
MH: He does some crazy experimental stuff and then he drops into Lincoln Center and on some more traditional jazz records. And I really wish there was more of that because it seems like everyone’s just fighting all the time about it. There are so many cliques and divides and people say that their thing is the only thing that’s relevant, but I think there’s a lot of good music in every category.
AL: For sure.
MH: So, that’s one thing that I have always tried to do is work with people in different genres or subgenres and try to learn from that. I don’t think it should necessarily be that divided.
AL: Now that this trio record is finished, what’s the next thing project for you?
MH: I am actually recording another record with Jessica Pavone. We’re recording another album and it will be out sometime soon, probably by the end of 2011. I’m also going to record another Quintet Record this summer.
AL: With the same Quintet that was featured on Saturn Sings?
MH: Yeah exactly. And my plan after that record is actually to add two more horns to make it a septet.
AL: Oh, that’s fantastic.
MH: So I just started working on that music. I’m excited about that and I will be alto (saxophone), trumpet, tenor (saxophone) and trombone in addition to guitar, bass and drums.
MH: So I guess you really enjoyed writing for horns. That was the first time that you have done that in a recording, right?
MH: Yeah I did really enjoy it, and I’m still figuring it out. It’s definitely challenging. But I do really enjoy it so I think I want to take it a little farther and then after that I think that’s it. After that I’ll probably go back to trio or something, but I just want to add a couple more horns and see what that would be like.
AL: You’ve said that one of the things that really influenced Saturn Sings was a renewed interest in harmony. Harmony is usually one of those things that most people use as a starting point when they’re getting into music, and I think it’s interesting that it would be something that you would return to. What is it about harmony that suddenly started to grab you and get you interested?
MH: Well I guess one of the things that happened was I went to jazz school for a year. In college I was in The New School for a year and it was just sort of overkill to me and I had to take a really long break from listening to jazz. I took about 8 years off.
MH: [Laughs] And then when I came back, I think that I was really hearing it in a different way. Because before I was really hearing it more melodically-oriented.
MH: I started listening to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messegers, and I was listening to all the harmony happening between the horns. For some reason that started interesting me more. I don’t know how to explain it other than I was hearing the same music I had been listening to when I was younger but hearing it from a new perspective.
MH: And around the same time I bought Finale, the computer program that allows you to write music in the computer. So I had that program and it makes it way easier to hear all the different voices so it made sense for me to start exploring that more at at that point.
AL: I’d read somewhere that you were into astrology as a side interest, and I was wondering if the title Saturn Sings had anything to do with that.
MH: Yeah, a lot of people think it has something to do with Sun Ra, but it actually has nothing to do with him. [Laughs] But yeah, astrology is like a hobby. I’ve taken classes on it and read a bunch of books and I’ve been studying it for about 10 years. But Saturn, well I don’t know, there’s a number of things but Saturn is just kind of taking over my whole life right now. [Laughs] It’s kind of hitting all my planets and it’s all chaos. [Laughs] So when I was writing that record I was really…. I mean, I don’t know how much you know about astrology.
AL: Oh, not much.
MH: I mean the Saturn Return is like a classic thing. If people know one thing about it, it’s that when you’re age 29 Saturn comes around and kind of destroys your life.
So that was sort of happening when I was writing that record, so that’s basically what that means to me. It was a really serious influence on me and I was going through a lot of restructuring and detail-oriented stuff and kind of re-thinking everything. So for me that was a big part of the processes of writing that record. That’s why it was titled that.
AL: As an astrology enthusiast what was your reaction to that crazy meme that was sweeping the internet about a month ago with the crazy new symbol and all that stuff?
MH: Oh gosh… [Laughs] I think it is totally ridiculous, but it was kind of funny how it got everybody all up in a fit about it. It caused a pretty funny reaction, but it just seems crazy to me that there would be a 13th sign. The whole system just seems like it’s based on twelve. You know, adding another thing just…. I mean it’s interesting, but I don’t really think it has any validity. [Laughs]
AL: Yeah. It was such a bizarre thing to be a news item. “This just in: there’s a new astrological sign.”
MH: [Laughs] I know, it’s totally ridiculous. It’s the same kind of thing as when it was decided Pluto was not a planet anymore. [Laughs] Everyone got upset about whether it was a planet or a planetoid or whatever. Who cares?
AL: Maybe that can be the title for your next album. Pluto’s Fired.
MH: [Laughs] Yeah.