Guitar Trailblazer Mary Halvorson Turns Jazz on Its Head

Radical six-stringer talks Jimi Hendrix inspiration, pedal-steel obsession

WHO: Mary Halvorson's guitar playing can be challenging and at times even confrontational, but it is never conventional. A fixture in avant-garde and improvisational music circles, the 35-year-old New York City–based guitarist is just as likely to pick out intricate, harmonically and melodically complex lines of stunning beauty as she is to unleash a violent spray of atonal, harshly distorted six-string noise. And she does it all with an impressive array of musicians — over the past dozen years, Halvorson has appeared on more than 70 albums, working as a bandleader, an ensemble member and a guest artist — and in a wide range of styles. She is known primarily as a jazz musician, but also plays in the experimental rock act People, has toured with the Melvins and just finished up a stint alongside guitarist Marc Ribot in a project called the Young Philadelphians, performing, she says, "old Philly soul tunes — with a twist." 

OPEN-MINDED: Despite her high standing in the jazz world, Halvorson says that she doesn't "really think of [herself] as a jazz guitarist." And in fact, she first picked up the instrument, at age 11, out of a love for Jimi Hendrix. "Probably some of the 'rock energy' in my playing comes from that place," she acknowledges. When she began taking guitar lessons, however, "the teacher that was recommended to my parents was a jazz guitarist, so I went in that direction." Later on, as a student at Wesleyan University, Halvorson studied under boundary-pushing composer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, who she calls "my first mentor and teacher." Braxton, she says, "sort of blew my whole world open as far as exposing me to different types of music, including experimental music. And I also learned from him that you don't have to follow a specific path — you can do whatever you want. Which seems obvious to me now ... but at the time, it was a pretty big milestone." 

THE JUMP-OFF: Halvorson has released recordings under her own name featuring ensembles of varying sizes, including a trio, a quintet and a septet. But her most recent album, 2015's Meltframe, is her first solo-guitar effort. Furthermore, it consists solely of interpretations of other artists' compositions, including those of jazz giants like Ornette Coleman, Duke Ellington and McCoy Tyner. But the results are hardly standard: The opening track, saxophonist Oliver Nelson's classic "Cascades," reworks the original's fluid horn lines into pointed, angular guitar scrambles. "That was one of my favorite records as a teenager," Halvorson says. "But rather than do some sort of imitation of Oliver Nelson's version, I tried to extract something out of it, maybe even just a feeling, and then put a new spin on it. In most cases, I was just thinking of the originals as a jumping-off point, really."

WOMAN OF STEEL: Halvorson's next project will take her further into uncharted waters — leading an octet that spotlights a pedal-steel guitarist. "I've kind of become obsessed with the pedal steel," she says. "It's a beautiful sound, and the mechanics of it are so interesting. I've been doing a lot of research and listening to a lot of music, and now I'm working pretty closely with a great pedal-steel player. And it's been really fun to figure out how to write music for it, even though it's still unclear to me what exactly the results will be." Whatever the outcome of her pedal-steel explorations, one can imagine that at the very least, they won't be anywhere in the realm of, say, weepy country balladry. Halverson just laughs. "No, I'm sure they won't." 

QUITE THE CONTRARY: Despite her general tendency toward the non-traditional, Halvorson affirms that she does, in fact, "have such a deep respect for so many musical traditions — I just don't feel that playing in those traditions is who I am." Rather, she says, "I try to take from them and then do something I think is different. And that can often lead to things that are a bit strange or that maybe go in a surprising direction." Halvorson pauses. "But I'm not trying to be contrarian or anything. It's just my aesthetics, I guess."