On December 1, 2012, Mary Halvorson meets me promptly at 3:30pm in the lobby of the Blackwell Inn at Ohio State University, where her quintet is playing later that evening at the Wexner Center for the Arts. She promptly tells me a mutual friend had instructed her to give me a hard time for being a Deadhead. I visibly wince, thinking I’ve been found out as a fraud: a pathetic rocker seeking communion with new-jazz’s preeminent guitarist. “Actually, I like the Dead,” she admits and tells me her father was way into them. “I remember he cried when Jerry died.” Wow, I did too!
MH: My dad was a big fan
RC: Really? Interesting. So he was jazz fan as well?
MH: Yeah, yeah he’s a fan of a lot of different stuff but the Dead was a big thing for him.
RC: Ah, interesting. Well, that kind of leads to one of the questions I wanted to ask you: As you probably know, you have a lot of really hardcore fans who follow you around, tape your shows, kind of like Deadheads.
MH: [Laughs] Not quite.
RC: Well, increasingly so. How does that make you feel? Does that make you uneasy or is it flattering?
MH: Um, I mean, it’s amazing, I mean it’s something I never really expected, you know, playing weirder types of music, you know, I mean I you hope people will listen but you know you never really expect it. So if I am able to play for an audience, I am always very thankful for that, so I think it’s a pretty special thing.
RC: You seem to be pretty, um, ah—you don’t seem to mind if people tape your shows and trade them, things like that.
MH: I mean it depends on who it is you know I think it depends on the situation. You know, like my friend, ______, who’s also friends with ______, he’ll tape things and he’ll always ask my permission before he posts them and I really appreciate that. Because what I don’t like is when people end posting these crappy quality, crappy sounding things without asking. So, I just like to be asked but I think you know it’s nice that this stuff is out there.
RC: Well, there’s all kinds of stuff out there from groups that haven’t released any official recordings, which is pretty exciting, like one of the recent things you did with Myra Melford, the Happy Whistlings.
MH: Oh, yeah.
RC: That was really interesting.
MH: With Stomu and Taylor?
RC: Ah, yeah, at Firehouse 12, maybe in May, something like that?
MH: There was something on the internet with that?
RC: No, this was you know that crowd in New York, I think _____ might have taped it.
MH: Oh wow, that’s cool.
RC: I somehow got ahold of it.
MH: I haven’t even heard it. See, that’s what I gather, it’s this whole underground world of tapers which ______ told me about it, I didn’t even know about it really. So I find that fascinating.
RC: Are you familiar with like Dimeadozen or other BitTorrent sites? There’s a lot of your stuff and Braxton’s stuff…
MH: Yeah, that’s amazing. I don’t really go on those sites much, so I guess I’m a little bit ignorant. Occasionally, someone will tell me, oh I found this show of yours posted somewhere. Yeah, it’s basically gotten out of control [laughs]. In a sense.
RC: Is that a good thing or…?
MH: Well, in terms of being able to control what you present. You know, I don’t have much control at this point. It’s basically gone, you know, everything is just there and I guess you just have to hope it’s a good show [laughs] that’s circulating.
RC: Uh-huh. Well, it’s all great that I’ve heard.
MH: Well, that’s nice.
RC: The recording quality maybe is iffy but it’s kind of tough to make a good recording in some situations.
RC: So, like, some of those groups, are they, like Happy Whistlings, is there any intention of keeping that going or making a record? Or are these just sort of one-off things?
MH: Not that I know of because probably since that gig I haven’t heard much from Myra about it. So I think she’s also just busy with other things. I mean it’s quite possible we could reconvene at some point but there aren’t any immediate plans for that.
RC: It was really interesting and kind of different from her usual stuff, a little more out there.
MH: Yeah, I really enjoyed it, I love her composing and obviously her playing. It was fun to get a chance to work with her.
RC: Another group is Thumb Screw? They’ve been pretty active in New York. Any plans to record that band?
MH: That we’re definitely going to record and right now we’re just trying to figure out, you know, which label we’re going to put it out on and when we’re going to record it. But I’d say that’s probably the next project of mine that will get recorded.
RC: Oh, OK, cool.
MH: Aside from the Septet, which I already recorded.
RC: Oh, I was going to ask you about that. So that’s been recorded?
MH: That’s been recorded and that will come out in August hopefully.
RC: Oh, awesome.
MH: Next year. But Thumb Screw is on the radar. We’ve been doing a lot more with that group and we definitely want to record and try to tour.
RC: Now is this your group or Michael Formanek’s group or…?
MH: It’s actually a collective which is really nice. Collectives, they don’t always work, you know, because sometimes you have one person or another that’s doing all the work or it feels kind of uneven or maybe even nobody does anything and then the whole thing just ends up fizzling out. But with Thumb Screw it seems like everyone is pretty equally invested in it which is unusual so there’s a nice balance. We all write for it, we all do work to get gigs for it so it’s been really fun. And both of those guys are both into rehearsing so we’ve actually spent—although we haven’t done that many gigs, maybe four or five gigs—we’ve spent quite a bit of time rehearsing and learning the material, which is awesome.
RC: Oh, that’s great. I read somewhere that you’re really into rehearsing.
MH: I really like to. I mean, I don’t always have time [laughs]. When there’s time and you can get everyone together.
RC: Right, well I was going to ask you, where do make time?
MH: I mean, it helps the music.
MH: I mean, the other way to do it is to just book a tour and work it out on stage, which is, you know, especially with my band, these guys are so busy it’s really hard to get everyone together to rehearse. So, often it will just be like, OK, we have this tour booked, we’re gonna go play the music and then it goes from there. So that’s another way of doing it but I do really like it when there’s a chance to rehearse.
RC: Are we going to hear any new music tonight?
MH: Um, a little bit. It’s going to be stuff from, um, mostly stuff from Bending Bridges and then I have two new pieces which I’m going to do kind of as a suite. Possibly an older one depending on time.
MH: I never really know how long they’re going to end up being [laughs]
RC: That relates to another question I wanted to ask you about is, like what is your practice regimen? First of all how to make time when you’re so busy? And, um, your manager sent me your press kit which was really fascinating. I’d read a lot of that stuff before but this I just found completely fascinating.
MH: Oh, he sent you that? That’s so funny.
RC: I’m sort of a guitar player myself so it was kind of fun to sort of look through this. Is this sort of an example of your practice?
MH: Yeah, that is something that I’ve actually…I go through phases with my practicing and there was a while where I was working on a lot of stuff like this and, um…what is this? Premier Guitar? When they asked me to do a lesson I thought, well, I’ll just do that since it’s something I’ve been working on. Um, and it’s kind of, you know, related to getting to know the fretboard better and an ear-training kind of a thing.
MH: Which I really like so usually, I mean, it’s just something I came up with. Usually I’ll just come up with something I want to be getting better at and I’ll form an exercise or something like this. I mean, I’ll do this with a million different scales. Sometimes I’ll make up my own scales and sometimes I’ll use scales from that book, um, yeah.
RC: What I find most interesting here is where you’re, where you’ve introduced the open strings.
MH: Oh, yeah.
RC: Um, and then the rhythmic displacement, this is...And I can sort of hear this sort of material in your compositions a little bit.
RC: Not directly. [Pause] Music’s so hard to talking about.
MH: Yeah, yeah.
RC: Yeah, sort of the unusual scales, and the rhythmic displacement and then the open strings, it seems to sort of define your unique style. Which is sort of just interesting about this your’re saying, well you have this raw material, the scale and then, working through it, you start to develop your own.
MH: Right, your own way of doing something with it so you’re not just regurgitating the scale but you’re adding your own thing to it.
RC: And insisting on playing it in all keys in one position so that you’re not just doing grips, you know.
RC: You’re really having to think about the notes.
MH: And that’s a real guitar thing, it’s so easy to just slide up the neck and play the same patterns, so trying to force yourself to be able to move in both directions on the guitar. Um, so, yeah, I mean I practice stuff like that but I, it really goes through phases. I’m really working on that anymore. Not that I’ve completely stopped but I’m kind of working on other things at the moment. But I’ll usually have a year where I’m really into working on one thing as the main thing and then sometimes I’ll do a little bit of other things. But I always try to write my own exercises and create my own things to practice. Like, I very rarely use an exercise book although I really like that Yusef book, but more as source material.
RC: I don’t have this particular book but I imagine it’s sort of like other books that where it’s just the material and not really so much his telling you what to do with it.
MH: Exactly. It’s just so much information. And then he does write little etudes and exercises so it’s also great for sight reading. But the cool thing is you can order it directly from Yusef, he still sells it.
RC: Oh really?
MH: He’s like 92 now, I think.
RC: I didn’t even know he was still alive!
MH: Yeah, he’s still alive and you can order his book from his website and he’ll personally mail you the book. So that’s kind of a nice thing.
RC: Oh, that is cool. Um…so, I wanted to go back a little bit to um…so, you took Suzuki violin starting when you were in second grade.
RC: So that’s really young, you know. I have some friends whose daughter are taking Suzuki piano. I myself didn’t do the Suzuki program, so it’s pretty foreign to me in a way. But it seems to work. It seems to make students progress really quickly.
RC: And like with how like reading is not even part of it for a long time, right?
MH: You know, honestly, I don’t remember because I was so young when I did it and I haven’t really looked through any of the Suzuki books probably since then so I don’t really remember.
RC: Hmmm. But you said you didn’t like it.
MH: I mean I guess I liked it for a while. Um, I wasn’t very good at violin, like I, you know, there would be kind of like two-level orchestras and I would always be like in the lower level, like I just, I really kind of really stuck. I would practice and stuff but it just, I didn’t really like playing in orchestras so, I think it just, I wanted to play music but I, after all, it didn’t seem like it was right fit.
RC: Was the repertoire part of it? Did you not really relate to classical so much?
MH: I think so. I think that was part of it. Yeah.
RC: Did you find that when you switched to guitar that the Suzuki training translated to the fretboard?
MH: Oh, definitely. I mean, it was just really helpful to have any kind of musical background. But when I first got a guitar, I was teaching myself out of tablature books, you know, before I started taking lessons. But it was good because I already knew I could read the notes and I knew the rhythm and I knew, so I kind of had a sense of how to go about it even though I didn’t know guitar. And there’s some similarity, you know, it’s vaguely similar to the violin.
RC: A little different tuning…
MH: A little different [laughs]. But there was something familiar, so I think I was able to pick it up way easier than if, I think if I hadn’t played violin I wouldn’t have a clue how to do that on my own.
RC: Uh-huh. So then you went to Wesleyan and at first you were a biology major, right? And then you started taking classes with Anthony Braxton and you said that totally changed everything.
RC: Now were you familiar with Braxton’s music at the time?
MH: A little bit. I had, the first record I got of his was in high school. I definitely wasn’t familiar with his whole body of work until I got to Wesleyan.
RC: It’s almost impossible to do, I mean…
MH: Well, I’m still not [laughs].
MH: The first record I got of Anthony’s actually was a Derek Bailey/Anthony Braxton duo. And I think I got that in high school, because I also really liked Derek Bailey so that was kind of my, um, way in. And then, I, you know, I think the first semester I took a class with him and then I started learning more and more about him.
RC: And so what is a class with Anthony Braxton like? I mean, I tried to read his books and, he’s, he can be a little obscure [laughs].
MH: Uh-hmm. It took me a year to kind of understand the way he speaks, because it’s so unique and he basically has his own language for how he explains things. So, at first, it was really exciting but also I almost felt I was taking a, you know, a foreign language course or just, it was really a new world for me. Um, he teaches a lot of different classes and I basically just took as many of them as I could. So, taught a class on Sun Ra and Stockhausen, which was like a lecture class.
MH: I took one I remember pretty well called the history of the jazz saxophone where he’d just bring in recordings. He’d like go to the record store, buy some CDs and then he’d put them and he’d talk about them and it was amazing just to hear his insight on stuff. Then there was his large ensemble class where you would just go and play and you’d read his music and you’d just dive in and be completely lost. And then, you know, gradually starting to understand the concepts. I mean, that’s how I learned how to sight read. I would take the music from the large ensemble back to the practice room and just try to learn it, you know. I worked on that for about a year, just trying to understand how it worked and then I learned so much from playing in that large ensemble, I did that every year.
RC: Uh-huh. And is that how you wound up joining his group?
MH: Yeah, just through time, you know, working with him in many different contexts. And then once I became a music major, he was like my thesis advisor and I took composition seminars with him and so I just became more involved. There was probably one semester where I was taking three or four classes with him, like my senior year.
RC: That must have been so awesome.
MH: Yeah, it was amazing.
RC: He fascinates me but I find him kind of puzzling at times, particularly the Ghost Trance Music. You know, when he went from the “classic quartet” with Marilyn Crispell and then into the Ghost Trance stuff, I couldn’t follow him there. The straight up-and-down rhythm just seemed so static to me compared to what he’d done before. And I, honestly, I just kind of stopped paying attention for a while and then I think it was the, that London 2004 record that you’re on and I think that, um, when I heard you playing this wild electric guitar [laughter] with Anthony Braxton, that was sort of like, oh, you know, I’ve gotta go back and pay attention to this. And so, I met Andrew Raffo Dewar last year at this thing and he was showing some scores, so I kind of get a sense of how the GTM sort of fits together. But then the Diamond Curtain Wall music and the Falling River Quartet music, the scores are like, paintings?
MH: Yeah, they’re more graphic scores. I mean, they’re kind of paintings but then they have, they do have kind of instructions and pictures and numbers and a lot of lines kind of pointing in directions so there’s some material that you can draw from, but it’s pretty open.
MH: It’s way more open than a lot of the other written stuff.
RC: How do you go about interpreting, you know, this watercolor?
MH: Um, kind of intuitively.
RC: Does he tell you, you know, to do this or do that?
MH: No, he doesn’t. And I think that each person interprets it differently, which I think is really a beautiful thing about it.
RC: Uh-huh. Because, like the Diamond Curtain Wall stuff sounds very free but the more you listen to it you realize it’s not really free.
RC: And you’ve made some remarks about how, you know, you do a lot of free playing but that you prefer some structure in what you’re doing.
MH: Often I do, yeah, well definitely in my own bands. I like to do both but, yeah, in my own bands I like to have some structure there.
RC: And I’m hearing a little more structure, like you have a recent record out with Weasel Walter and Peter Evans and, compared to the previous record, there seems to be some real composition there that maybe wasn’t there previously.
MH: Yeah, there was no composition on the previous record, so we kind of brought that in just to see what it would sound like.
RC: Interesting. I like both of that stuff, but the composition is a little bit more, something to hold onto.
MH: Yeah, I think so too. I like having that element there because there is still plenty of improvisation happening.
RC: Right. So then in your music, your quintet music, I hear a lot of like 60s-era Blue Note, the more avant side, you know. It kind of swings and you have the horns and, um, it’s quite different from some of the other contexts you work in, it’s more, like overtly jazz.
RC: And you’ve said that you’re not ashamed of the jazz label. But when I was coming up there seemed to be a real, like there were a lot of battle lines in jazz, you know, there’s the “out guys” and the “inside guys” and the post-bop people and they never played together and they always kind of sniped at each other and, you know, jazz was always this boys club kind of thing.
RC: And then it seemed like around the turn of the century, like to me when Susie Ibarra when started playing with David S. Ware, things shifted and all of a sudden there’s all these women on the scene.
RC: You and Ingrid Laubrock and Kris Davis and, um, the older generation like Myra Melford and Irene Schweitzer were more around and I can’t help but think there is something about the boys club being broken up and women being on the scene has sort of brought this fresh air to jazz.
RC: Do you think that’s – I mean, this essentialist, like is there a feminine music or male music, I don’t think that—but it really seems to me like there’s something about having more women in jazz that has really refreshed the whole scene.
MH: Really? Yeah, I mean it’s definitely nice. I feel like it’s diverse in a lot more ways than it used to be. And there’s so many women, I mean there’s a couple times that I’ve gone and done stuff at colleges, there’s so many women, or, you know I taught up at BAM (?) or SIM (?) in New York at these programs, which are high school and college students. And there’s so many more women and that’s great. And that really wasn’t the case when I was growing up, which wasn’t even that long ago, right? But I never really encountered that many women, especially in jazz. So I think it’s really nice and I think things are changing. I mean, you still get, um, it’s still very separated in terms of these little sub-genres of jazz, the straight-people think this stuff is bullshit and then there’s people that anything that isn’t complete avant-garde is bullshit, you know, so there’s this kind of divisions that still happen and I’m not a big fan of that because I think there’s a lot of great music in every sub genre.
MH: And there’s a lot of horrible music as well, but if you weed through it, you know, I don’t think there’s like one little type of music that’s “the shit.”
RC: Uh-huh. Is that more from the audiences that sort of splinter like that?
MH: No, it’s the musicians too. I mean, you’ll notice there’s, I mean, it’s natural, of course, that there’s these little, um, you know, I play a lot with Ingrid and Tom, you know, you have these groups that kind of form and some musicians are really open to a lot of different, doing a lot of different things. Jon Irabagon is a great example because he plays a lot of more straight-ahead stuff, he plays really crazy, out stuff [laughs], you know, and everything in between. And I have a lot of respect for that because I think it’s nice to be open to different possibilities and to be able to take influence from different things. Like even if something isn’t your favorite genre and you go hear someone do that amazing, in an amazing way, you can really learn a lot, so.
MH: I’m really into that. I think it’s interesting to collaborate with people that are working in different genres.
RC: Yeah, because everyone of your generation, like Taylor Ho Bynum and you and Ingrid, you seem to be very, like anything can happen, like any type of music could happen at any time. It’s really refreshing. The band I played tried to do that and we got a lot of puzzled looks. But now it just seems like that’s just the most natural thing in the world.
MH: A lot of people are doing that because people these days have so many different influences musically, you know, it’s not like you just like jazz. People are being influenced by everything.
RC: Right. And you went the New School, you call it “jazz school,” you went to jazz school you said you really got into that and it killed it for you. I imagine there was a little of that, you know, “All the Things You Are” is where it’s at and…
MH: Yeah, and you have to play it correctly and this is how you’re going to play it and it kind of sucked the life out of it for me, it made it kind of lifeless, you know. But at the same time I did want to learn all that stuff and I wanted to learn the guitar technique, I wanted to learn the scales, I wanted to learn the chords. So I was learning it, which I wanted to do, but in the process it kind of lost something for me. I just needed a break.
RC: And so the first record you released was a MAP, or M-A-P—
MH: Uh-huh, MAP, yeah.
RC: And that’s about as far away from like straight-ahead jazz as you can get.
RC: So was that sort of a reaction to the jazz school thing?
MH: Yeah that was sort of the, yeah, I just sort of wanted to…I guess I was, you know, I was playing compositions, too. I was doing a lot of improvising. I was playing compositions but not standards. And that was kind of what I was taking a break from and a lot of the stuff I was doing was influenced by jazz so that I wasn’t really practicing more traditional jazz and it I do now, actually, practice that stuff because I think it’s a really good way to learn the instrument and I want to be able to apply it, that material into what I’m doing.
RC: Well, there’s almost a kind of psychedelic rock element to that record that was kind of surprising to me but I know Jimi Hendrix was big early influence. And I was thinking about that, and I was like, I don’t really hear a lot of Hendrix in your playing, and I don’t hear a lot of blues, or pentatonic scales, or whammy bars and bending the strings and that sort of things. But the more I thought about it, it’s like, I like Hendrix’s influence in the way you use technology. Not just the distortion but also the warping the sound of the guitar and not being a purist.
RC: And that you found your own voice, you didn’t just ape Hendrix, which is what a lot of people do.
MH: Right. Right.
RC: What was your first, um, I read somewhere that like your first record was a Beach Boys record. What record was that?
MH: Oh yeah. I had, it was a cassette tape. I was probably five or six years old. I don’t know why I picked up this particular one, but it was Surfin’ USA. [laughter] And I thought I was so cool, I had this little cassette deck and the tape.
RC: How funny! Are the Beach Boys something you still care about?
MH: I love the Beach Boys. I still do. I really don’t know why I got that tape but I really liked it. I mean, that’s not my favorite Beach Boys, but that was what I picked up.
RC: That’s funny. I have a friend who’s really into the Beach Boys and I don’t get it.
MH: You don’t like it? [laughs]
RC: It sounds old-fashioned to me.
MH: That’s funny. I guess I like some stuff that sounds old-fashioned, sometimes I’m into that.
RC: Like I said, I kind of hear that in your quintet. Like, on the surface it’s quite accessible, really.
MH: Some people think. I think some people, you might think so, but I think some people would hear it and be like, “this is totally unlistenable.” [laughter] So I think that’s what’s interesting about it is that it really just depends, you know, on what perspective you’re coming from.
RC: Well, it’s not like ever stay in one place, you know, the head may be sort of swinging and nice jazz harmonies and then something will take a left turn and go over here and it will open up. And you’ve talked about composing so that there’s space for improvisation. How do you go about that, or notating it, or moving from constructed areas to non-constructed areas?
MH: Well, I try to have variety in what types of spaces they are, so some of the spaces will be completely open for improvising but maybe one person might be the soloist but basically all that’s there is we finished that melody, which was “A” and we know we have to get to “B,” which is maybe a pretty different sounding section, so you’re just bridging the gap between those two sections and within that anything can happen. That’s one scenario. Sometimes I have stuff that’s over a form and people are improvising over a form. Even then, um, there’s always the option you could go off that if you want to. Like I never want it to be like people are caged in.
RC: And the form, even if there is a form for that improvisation section, it’s not like you’ve just taken the harmonic structure, head, and sort of like the jazz model where you play changes over and over again and then you come back and play the melody.
MH: Right. It might be vaguely based on that but I’ll, you know, it will be a little different because often it doesn’t go back to that first melody. So maybe it does take some harmonic material from the melody and use it in a different way to a vamp or a form. So sometimes things like that are happening or there will be background lines happening underneath that other people are playing. Or sometimes there’s a duo that’s happening with two instruments, or sometimes it’s a solo. I try to create different structures so it’s not always like, oh, they played the melody and here’s the free section again because I think that gets predictable.
MH: So I try to have variety and that’s challenging too because you have to think about in the context of a full set, you know, like I have these other songs where everything’s free so I’m going to try to do something maybe where it’s over a structure. And that’s like another challenge, to try to—how can I use that material to create a structure? Because I want this one to be a little more structured than the other things.
END OF PART ONE.