Guitarist Mary Halvorson has always been open about her influences and like many musicians her age—she turns 35 today—rock has been a huge part of her early listening. She’s certainly the first jazz musician whom I ever interviewed to profess her adoration for Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich. She’s played in rock-leaning projects, like her spazzy band with drummer Kevin Shea called People, but her rock side has come out in her jazz playing in less obvious ways. Last month she released her first solo album, Meltframe (Firehouse 12), which she spent three years developing and finessing; she finally entered the studio after an opening slot on a tour with Melvins guitarist Buzz Osborne.
On her many previous recordings Halvorson focused on her own thorny compositions, but Meltframe is rather somewhat of a salute to some of her favorite music—she made room for some formative jazz influences as well as material of more recent provenance by some of her closest colleagues. In each case she brings her strong personality to the fore, liberally interpreting and remaking the music. That tendency couldn’t surface more radically than it does on the opener: a bracing reinvention of Oliver Nelson’s classic “Cascades,” a complex yet buoyant postbop standard from his album The Blues and the Abstract Truth. Halvorson interprets the slashing horn charts with overdriven, serrated guitar work, ripping apart the melodic lines as floods of barely contained feedback threaten to wash it all away. A more tender side is demonstrated on a rendition of Annette Peacock’s “Blood,” with its sorrowful melody articulated in bluesy, vibrato-rich phrasing, although tension surfaces as the volume and intensity swells up during an extended coda. Halvorson’s version of Ornette Coleman’s “Sadness,” which you can hear below, churns with slow arpeggios and a metallic clang (not as in heavy metal, but literally the sound of metal clattering, like a kalimba but harsher), while the rendition of Duke Ellington’s ballad “Solitude” unfolds with painstaking slowness, resonant notes hanging in the air with palpable fragility.
On her take on McCoy Tyner’s “Aisha,” which John Coltrane famously recorded on 1961’s Olé, Halvorson refracts the shape of the tune with an almost cubist rigor, bathing it, alternately, in vibrato, pedal-hopping noise, and lyric tenderness. She also takes on material by French guitarist Noël Akchoté, drummer (and prime musical foil) Tomas Fujiwara, and bassist Chris Lightcap, instilling an almost Black Sabbath-like lumber to the latter’s “Platform.” The album closes with a reading of Roscoe Mitchell’s “Leola,” another instance where Halvorson’s rock-music knowledge drops in, with lacerating little stabs that accent the herky-jerky flow with great effectiveness. My gut feeling is that this is a kind of one-off experiment for Halvorson, but I’d be happy if it’s the first in a series of efforts where she essays the music of others. On Meltframe, she manages to say an awful lot about the music she’s playing as well as where her own art is going.
Fake the Facts, Soundtrack (Trost)
Nina Becker, Minha Dolores: Nina Becker Canta Dolores Duran (Joia Moderna)
Jeroen Van Veen, Satie: Slow Music (Brilliant Classics)
Toshiya Tsunoda and Manfred Werder, Detour (Erstwhile)
Nathan Bowles, Nansemond (Paradise of Bachelors)