Mary Halvorson: First Lady of improvised music

20. October, 2017

A composer and improviser…light years ahead of her peers, she is the most impressive guitarist of her generation… The future of jazz guitar starts here.

These are just some of the quotes about Mary Halvorson – the most esteemed artist/guitarist of the younger generation whose voice on the music scene is unique and outstanding, both as an instrumentalists and as a composer.

She will present herself at XX1st Jazz Fest Sarajevo as a member of the trio Thumbscrew, and before the first concert in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she talks about improvisation but also how to be a woman in the world dominated by men.


JFS: You undoubtedly mastered adding more to the traditional patterns, creating in constant flow the new worlds of sound through improvisation. How did you enter this exciting sonic universe?
MH: Improvisation in music has always been important to me, and it plays a big part in my ideas about creativity and musical expression. The guitarist who first got me excited about improvisation, at age 11, was Jimi Hendrix. There is a certain thrill about expression in the moment, about not knowing what exactly is going to happen. I have explored improvisation from many different angles, through the study of jazz and the avant-garde, and also thinking about its role in various kinds of rock music, noise and sonic explorations. In college I had the good fortune of studying with Anthony Braxton, who encouraged the study of every kind of music imaginable. To me a lot of it is about the melding of worlds and ideas.


JFS: Unfortunately, there are not many female artists in the realm of improvised music. How does it feel to be a woman in a music world dominated by men?
MH: It’s true there are not as many female artists in improvised music, but I have noticed a real shift in momentum in the past several years. These days I play with so many female musicians; in fact it’s not uncommon for me to play in bands where women outnumber men. When I teach at music programs and schools, I see way more young women playing than when I was starting out. So I see this is a real positive shift…  although there’s a long ways to go, I do things are moving in the right direction here.


JFS: You worked with many prominent artists, such as Marc Ribot, John Zorn, Anthony Braxton etc. Which collaboration was the most inspiring for you?
MH: That’s impossible to say… I learned so much from each one. Anthony Braxton was one of my first teachers, and was my first musical hero. For me he reinvented everything, expanded my concept of what music can be. Without Anthony I would probably not be playing music today. I learned so much from him and continue to learn so much from him. Marc Ribot is one of my heroes on guitar and playing with him is an absolute inspiration. From Marc I learned the value of spontaneity, freedom, breaking down boundaries, being truly in the moment. Finally, working with John Zorn- another early hero- has been incredibly eye opening. The intensity, fearlessness and purpose he puts into everything he does, and the scope of his vision from a micro to macro level, is unprecedented.


JFS: You have various projects as a bandleader and a composer. What are the challenges of being in the role of a leader?
MH: There are many levels of challenges, although I really enjoy bandleading. I think it’s important to have a clear vision of what you want, and to simultaneously leave a lot of freedom for the musicians. I try to present music that is clearly written and states a strong intention, without boxing people in too much. There is also a lot of organizing and scheduling work that goes into it. My bands work best when I am working with musicians who are my close friends and who I know and trust, who work hard, are fun to hang out with, and have a positive attitude and energy.


JFS: Thumbscrew is one of your projects you will present to the audience of Jazz Fest Sarajevo. Can you tell us something about the project – what does Thumbscrew stand for?
MH: Thumbscrew is a collective project with myself, Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara. All three of us write music for it, and all three of us divvy up the tasks involved in bandleading! From the first moment we played together back in ‘08 or ‘09, there was a strong chemistry there, and we immediately decided to form Thumbscrew. We have functioned really well working in a collective manner and it’s been so much fun developing a band sound. When collectives really work they can be extremely rewarding. We have two records out on the Cuneiform record label, and we recently recorded two more. The name Thumbscrew was the creation of Michael Formanek so you’ll have to ask him about it 🙂


JFS: You use a lot of open strings in your playing, which adds to the original sound signature of yours. How did you come up with this idea?
MH: My use of open strings really grew out of a mistake. I remember playing around on guitar when I was in college and hitting an open string by accident. I thought it sounded cool and so I started writing exercises to integrate open strings more fluidly into my playing. Part of it also comes from my love of the upright bass, and the way bassists can hit an open string and create such a large resonant sound and attack. I wanted to emulate that on guitar. Guitarists have six open strings and don’t use them nearly enough!


JFS: Which guitar do you like to play the most and why?
MH: I have two guitars I play regularly, and I love them equally. My first guitar is a Guild Artist Award model from 1970 which I’ve been playing since I was 20 years old. It’s a beautiful guitar with a warm sound and great acoustic quality. Three years ago I had a custom guitar built for me by the brilliant luthier Flip Scipio. The guitar was built with the intention of having an instrument that sounds and feels similar to my Guild but is also easy to travel with– it has a removable neck. It’s an incredible instrument with a really resonant sound.