Mary Halvorson: Melt the Frame

In her reworking of the Beatles' "With a Little Help from my Friends," on the 2018 tribute album, A Day In The Life: Impressions Of Pepper (impulse records), Brooklyn guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson reinvents both her instrument and the song.

Most baby boomers can hum the tune of the Beatles' classic, from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, in a handful of notes. It might take longer to recognize Halvorson's joyous, angular version. A master of jazz phrasing, guitar technique, avant-garde discourse, and effects pedals, Halvorson bends the Beatles song to her 21st century will.

Playing her large-body Guild Artist Award archtop guitar through a Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler pedal and a Fender Princeton Reverb amplifier (footnote 1)—the guitar strings and body and the amplifier are both miked and then mixed—Halvorson introduces the song's triumphal vocal sequence ("Bil–ly-Shears!") with luminous chords, then recites its verses as purely as Jim Hall might—but in Halvorson's hands the familiar chorus bucks and jolts via stark chords and intricate picking. Melody is displaced by startling reharmonizations, swerving spectral notes, liquid, bent-string displays, and eruptive, on-the-beat rhythms. Bittersweet strums close the performance, returning the song to earth. It's still that same Beatles tune, but it's forever altered by Halvorson's language and spirited imagination.


At 40, Halvorson is a prolific artist, with 10 recordings as a leader and 50 collaborative recordings (footnote 2). She has performed and recorded with many of New York City's premier improvisers, from Anthony Braxton (with whom she studied at Wesleyan University) and Bill Frisell to Tom Rainey, Joe Morris, Tomeka Reid, Ben Goldberg, Marc Ribot, Ingrid Laubrock, and Jessica Pavone, in every manner of jazz ensemble: duos, trios, quartets, quintets. She's also a member of the octet Living By Lanterns, which combines four musicians each from New York and Chicago. She has recorded a brilliant solo album, Meltframe.

Often lauded as one of jazz's freshest voices, perhaps what's most unusual about Halvorson's playing is how she combines pure and undiluted guitar tone—think Johnny Smith, one of Halvorson's heroes—while deconstructing musical forms like her mentor Anthony Braxton. Halvorson's music isn't always easy to grasp—although sometimes it is. Either way, once absorbed, it becomes irresistible. Her quirky wit, playful demeanor, and disruptive temperament sometimes tweak and sometimes slam jazz conventions.

In 2018, Halvorson released Code Girl, a widely praised double CD with Amirtha Kidambi on vocals, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Michael Formanek on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Code Girl became a concept and then a band, and now it's back: The ensemble Code Girl released a second CD, Artlessly Falling (Firehouse 12), adding Maria Grand on tenor saxophone, Adam O'Farrill on trumpet, and 75-year-old former Soft Machine drummer Robert Wyatt; Wyatt shares vocals with Kidambi. Falling is an improvisatory album, but it features poetry and frequently sounds like art song.


Halvorson's forthcoming releases include Thumbscrew's Never Is Enough and two recordings of John Zorn's bagatelles, one with her quartet of Miles Okazaki (guitar), Drew Gress (bass), and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), the second with pianist Kris Davis's quartet: Davis, Halvorson, and Gress, with Kenny Wollesen on drums.

Ken Micallef: Your version of "A Little Help from My Friends" is a unique distillation of the Lennon-McCartney classic. It recalls your Meltframe solo record.

Mary Halvorson: I avoided listening to the original recording and tried to come up with a cover based on playing guitar from the song embedded in my memory. That song is clearly embedded in all our memories, even though I hadn't listened to it recently at the time when I got the request. I liked the idea of trying to go on my impressions or memory of the song. I did go back and listen to the original song at some point and added ideas to the arrangement based on that. It was fun because it wasn't something I would've thought to do on my own. I do love and grew up listening to The Beatles. Sometimes, it's really interesting when somebody presents something to you which you wouldn't have thought of but does seem like a really cool thing to do.

Micallef: At 40, you already have a large body of recorded work. You can play guitar with a pure jazz tone, stylized folk picking, and the more angular stuff with the effects pedals and slide. The way you use distortion recalls punk or prog. How did you come to include distortion in your style?

Halvorson: That was one of my earliest influences, before I got into jazz. Jimi Hendrix was the reason I started playing guitar. And I was really into Led Zeppelin and the Allman Brothers Band and the Beatles. Some of the first touring I did, when I was 24, was with Trevor Dunn's trio, and we did a month of shows opening for The Melvins. That reignited my interest in heavy, distorted stuff. It was so inspiring to hear them every night. I also had an experimental rock band around that time called People, where I would sing and play guitar.

Micallef: Are you a sieve or a sponge?

Halvorson: My goal is to be evolving and to take in new things, keep challenging myself and growing and incorporating new ideas. I try to check out a lot of different music and challenge myself to not make the same record twice.

Micallef: What are you listening to currently?

Halvorson: One thing I was really excited about was the last Fiona Apple record, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. It's so good. I really needed that record in this quarantine moment. And I've been listening to a lot of Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman—classic stuff that I've been into for a long time. Also, Jacob Garchik's Clear Line, a big band record.

Micallef: You play a hollow body electric guitar, a Guild Artist Award, and you mike both the amplifier and the guitar strings.

Halvorson: What has always interested me with an electric guitar is that duality of having both the acoustic and the electric sound present. The reason I like that big Guild archtop guitar is because it has such a beautiful acoustic sound and such a big sound, and you can really hear the strings and the attack and the resonance of the instrument. I almost never practice through an amp, because I love the sound of that guitar by itself. But when you add the amp, then you get this whole other element, which you can then augment with distortion and all kinds of effects. I've always been drawn to the idea that you can hear both of those things at once, the strings and the guitar body, and it gives the guitar a three-dimensional sound.

Micallef: That big guitar makes me think of Johnny Smith.

Halvorson: He's one of my favorites. I'm obsessed with Johnny Smith. The guitar I play the most, which is a Guild Artist Award from 1970, Guild designed that to be the Johnny Smith Award guitar. Johnny Smith decided he didn't want it. They couldn't call it the Johnny Smith Award anymore, so they called it Artist Award. And that's the guitar I play. But I didn't know who Johnny Smith was, or I had no idea about any of this when I got the guitar.

Micallef: Sometimes, your playing is very pure and reminds me of Johnny Smith.

Halvorson: I'll bring him up with people, and they have no idea who he is. It's fascinating. I can't believe I initially missed him. I did a Johnny Smith duo tribute record a couple of years ago, with Bill Frisell. It's The Maid With the Flaxen Hair: A Tribute to Johnny Smith (Tzadik, 2018, footnote 3).

Footnote 1: Halvorson also uses a Mission Engineering EP1-L6 pedal, Mooer Black Secret, Trelicopter, and Tender Octaver pedals, a Dunlop X volume pedal, Elixir NanoWeb Strings, and a Dunlop 1mm stubby pick.

Footnote 2: Fred Kaplan reviewed Mary Halvorson's Illusionary Sea in January 2014.—Ed.

Footnote 3: Fred Kaplan listed The Maid with the Flaxen Hair as one of his best jazz records of 2018 for NPR.—Ed.


Allen Fant's picture

An excellent article and interview -KM.

ken mac's picture


boMD's picture

I saw Mary Halvorson play with Thumbscrew in a church here in Portland, OR. Was one of the best shows and sound was killer good. I love her playing so much. Great insights from this interview. Thanks for sharing.

mrmikegc5's picture

Mary Halvorson almost seems a bit too academic at times, but none-the-less her art is brilliant to my ears.

I caught her live (pre-Covid with Code Girl & Thumscrew most recently) and the music was stellar.

I would thoroughly enjoy if she stood up from the music stand and shred like the inner guitar god that lives within her however. Until then, I will keep listening to her brilliant work hoping others join in.