American musician Mary Halvorson, born in 1980, started playing the violin as a child but switched to electric guitar at the age of 11, inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Later, Halvarson became interested in jazz through the music of Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk. The final decision to pursue a career in music was made after attending a lecture by saxophonist Anthony Braxton at university. Halvorson made her studio debut with Trevor Dunn’s (Mr. Bungle) album Sister Phantom Owl Fish in 2004, and released her first album Dragon’s Head with a trio four years later.
Since then, Halvorson has been extremely productive. In addition to over a dozen albums under her own name, she has played on dozens of other albums either as a guest or a key collaborator. Halvorson has quickly become one of the most respected musicians in contemporary jazz. In 2019, Halvorson received an impressive grant of over $600,000 from the MacArthur Foundation. The grant is intended to be used in the next five years. The grant may explain why Halvorson’s work rate seems to be accelerating; in 2022 alone she released three albums. The most important of these three albums are Belladonna and the subject of this text, Amaryllis. These two records are like sister albums and were released on the same day. Belladonna is a unique chamber jazz with a string quartet, and Amaryllis is mostly made with a jazz sextet.
Halvorson’s music is usually classified as avant-garde jazz, but the influences she mixes into her music are very diverse. In addition to the obvious jazz elements, one can often hear influences from art music, progressive rock, or even noise. The mix of influences varies from album to album. Halvorson’s music is mostly instrumental, but she made her first vocal album, Code Girl, in 2018. Halvorson was so impressive in vocal music that she managed to attract the already retired hero Robert Wyatt to be the singer for the sequel, Code Girl: Artlessly Falling.
As a guitarist, Halvorson is very unique and daringly experimental. Her virtuoso playing is full of strange chords and sounds and she is a skilled improviser. Halvarson usually plays with a bright and clean sound which she often spices up and manipulates with strange effects. Halvorson’s semi-acoustic electric guitar is usually miked so that both the amplifier and the strings of the guitar are miked directly, so that the natural sound of the guitar is always audible regardless of the amount of effects. Halvorson’s style is difficult to compare to other guitarists, but occasionally I’m reminded of Fred Frith.
Amaryllis is a new conquest for Halvorson, as she has not, to my knowledge, composed for such a large ensemble before. On the first three tracks of the album, there is a sextet consisting of Halvarson’s guitar, vibraphone, double bass, drums, trombone, and trumpet. On the three last tracks, the aforementioned ensemble is joined by a string quartet, The Mivos Quartet, which is also used on the sister album Belladonna.
The energetic “Night Shift” starts off Amaryllis. The band creates a juicy groove led by Patricia Brennan’s vibraphone. However, the groove occasionally drops due to the irregular time-signature. Halvorson’s strangely jittery clean-sounding picking and exotic chord-containing electric guitar-licks add to the atmosphere. Soon after, Jacob Garchik’s high-pitched trombone lines strike powerfully, bringing with them a more straightforward jazz atmosphere. Nick Dunston’s double bass is heard actively and clearly articulated in the background. The atmosphere intensifies and the whole band plays together with a passionate but still somehow seductively soft feeling. At the end, the vibraphones play a quick solo, and Halvorson’s electric guitar turns into a kaleidoscope of psychedelic shapes and colors. “Night Shift” is magical music.
After the energetic “Night Shift”, the atmosphere calms down. “Anesthesia” is more free-form music, probably largely free improvisation. The wind instruments take the lead in the beginning of the piece. In the middle section, a melancholic melodic theme is presented, which is probably composed. However, the band does not stay in the theme for long as their minds wish to return to improvisation. Halvarson conjures up all sorts of strange sounds from her electric guitar in the abstract section, and the drummer rattles and rattles to his heart’s content. I’m reminded of King Crimson’s improvisation in “Moonchild” on their debut album. At the end, the melancholic wind theme returns powerfully and firmly establishes the music in a more traditional jazz circle.
The title track “Amaryllis” is another fast track. It starts with a juicy double bass riff, to which Halvorson’s nimble-fingered electric guitar playing soon joins. The bass drum beats heavily in the background and the wind instruments play melodies over the riffs of the guitarist and bassist. At the end of the piece, drummer Tomas Fujiwara is let loose. His passionately driving drumming is simply awesome to hear, as is Adam O’Farrill’s powerful trumpet solo. “Amaryllis”’s brings to mind Henry Cow’s complex and energetic mix of jazz and rock on their first album, Leg End (1973).
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The B-side opening ”Side Effect” brings The Mivos Quartet strings for support. The piece starts with a sharply scraping violin ostinato, to which a cello melodically joins. After a minute and a half, the intro is brought to its conclusion by a flowing note sequence of the vibraphone and after a second’s artful pause. the entire band hits in dynamically. Fujiwara knocks into the game a tight groove and Dunston’s double bass gets to solo beautifully with a raspy sound that is paradoxically rough, yet round and soft. The trumpet’s staccato solo races against the bass and in the background Halvorson’s electric guitar and softly sounding vibraphone try to bring nightclub atmosphere without ultimately succeeding. ”Side Effect” is a good example of how Halvorson gives a lot of space to other musicians while herself is often staying in the background for a long time.
The second to last track ”Hoodwink” starts with an abstract string quartet improvisation that plays around with a grinding dissonance. A unison lines by electric guitar and vibraphone lead the music to a more tonal ground after about two minutes, eventually pulling in the rest of the band. The trumpet sounds intensely sharp. Its sound has a hint of nostalgic romanticism too. In the background, mournfully winding violins reinforce this atmosphere. Halvarson plays a long, meandering electric guitar solo with a clean but slightly humming sound. ”Hoodwink” is a powerful chamber jazz.
The album’s closing track ”892 Teeth” begins with a trumpet accompanied by strings, to which the hypnotic pattern of the vibraphone soon joins. After the stern trumpet melody in the middle part, the most lyrical moment of the entire album arrives when a beautiful lyrical vibraphone solo is brought to the spotlight. The solo sounds like drops of water that the wind throws onto a silver-shining water surface. At first the drops hit the water here and there, but then increasingly faster and with more intensity. The atmosphere changes violently, however, when Halvorson plays a really strange, buzzing and twitching electric guitar solo behind the rhythm, which becomes very complex. The melodically sounding trumpet interrupts the chaos and the music fades out.
Amaryllis lasts only 38 minutes, but it is such a full and colorful musical journey that it satisfies me completely. I can’t ask for anything more. On the other hand, with the sister album Belladonna it is possible to return somewhat to the same atmosphere.
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I enjoy complex music and I can enjoy quite abstract soundscapes, but my all-time favorite records are ultimately those where complexity meets accessibility. Records that manage to bring together avant-garde and more traditional musicality naturally. Amaryllis is such a record. It definitely utilizes a wide palette of harmonies, contains quite hairy rhythms and unusual soundscapes, but to balance this all it also offers strong melodic moments full of feeling, virtuosic yet natural sounding solos and powerfully grooving collective playing. Its sound has something very human to it which I believe even listeners not accustomed to avant-garde jazz or experimental music in general can easily latch onto. Amaryllis feels like a record made just for me and I believe it will be rightfully called a classic in the future.
Best tracks: ”Night Shift”, ”Amaryllis”, ”Hoodwink”, ”892 Teeth”
Kirjoittaja: JANNE YLIRUUSI
Note: This review has been translated to English using Open AI. Special thanks for translation suggestions for Progressive Ears members Sputnik and Baribrotzer. You can read the original Finnish text here.
Read more about jazz
- Night Shift 5:53
- Anesthesia 6:42
- Amaryllis 5:55
- Side Effect 6:48
- Hoodwink 6:48
- 892 Teeth 5:51
Mary Halvorson: guitars, Patricia Brennan: vibraphone, Nick Dunston: bass, Tomas Fujiwara: drums, Jacob Garchik: trombone, Adam O’Farrill: trumpet Olivia De Prato: violin, Mayo Bennardo: violin, Victor Lowrie Tafoya: alto violin, Tyker J. Borden: cello