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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Mary Halvorson drew acclaim this year for her album Meltframe (Firehouse 12), in which she explored a varied set of songs on solo guitar. But her setup at the Jazz Gallery on Dec. 15 and 16 will feature seven additional musicians. “It’s pretty drastically different,” Halvorson said, laughing, by phone. “I went from the smallest group I’ve ever done something with to the largest group.”

These concerts will mark the public debut of the Mary Halvorson Octet, which features many of Halvorson’s longtime collaborators, including those that make up her trio (Ches Smith on drums, John Hebert on bass), quintet (Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet and Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone), septet (Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone and Jacob Garchik on trombone), and finally, pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. Excerpts from our conversation with her are below.

The Jazz Gallery: What does this group signify, and what will it sound like?

Mary Halvorson: I started with a trio, then I added two people and made a quintet, then added two more people to make a septet, now I’m adding one more person, Susan Alcorn, to make an octet. I’m thinking about this as an extension of those other bands. The idea was basically to integrate her sound into the existing septet and see what happens. So I wrote a whole new book of music with her in mind.

TJG: What will she add to the group?

MH: I heard her over the years in a few different contexts, was always completely blown away by what she does, and by the instrument itself. It’s such an unusual and beautiful sound. It has some resemblance to a guitar, obviously, but it has this whole other element: crazy sustain and a beautiful tone and an enormous range.

TJG: Have you ever played a pedal steel guitar?

MH: Once I did at my friend’s house. I felt like a kid in a candy store. It’s that amazing feeling you only get when you play an instrument that’s not your regular instrument. It’s just so beautiful and also so complicated, with all the knee levers and foot pedals and the guitar neck.

TJG: It’s a pretty full-sounding instrument. Are you worried about cluttering up the sound of the group at all?

MH: The music is pretty dense. That’s something I’ve been thinking about. I enjoy the density, but while I’ve been writing, I try to be aware of leaving space and having moments where smaller configurations of people can play. And also for surprise: for things to come out that aren’t necessarily on the page. We’re gonna get together on Saturday for the first time and work pretty intensively until the performances. I don’t really know what it sounds like yet [laughs].

TJG: You have extensive history with all of these musicians. Was there an instant connection from the first time you heard them?

MH: All of them are friends of mine, all people I hang out with and really like. That’s important to me: to have a group of people that I trust. Also, people that have a wide range of what they can do musically. Some of this stuff is on the complex side of written material, and some of it is pretty free and open. Some of it has changes, some of it doesn’t. I try to choose people that I felt can navigate between these different zones.

TJG: Did the work you did in 2015, specifically Meltframe, feel like an extension or a break from your previous work?

MH: Doing the solo record was a pretty drastic departure from what I normally do. That felt really nice. I never played solo before I started doing that project. It was definitely difficult and continues to be a learning experience. It’s also very intense. When I do those gigs, I’d be practicing a lot leading up them. 

TJG: Playing solo must be intense not only musically but mentally.

MH: It really is. On certain days I feel more inspired than others. When you’re having a day you’re not feeling super inspired and you play a gig with a band, inevitably someone will play something inspiring or someone will lift you. But when you’re playing solo, you have to get that all from yourself. The trick is trying to let stuff happen without getting too caught up in the subtleties of how you’re feeling, physically or mentally.

TJG: Meltframe covers songs across decades and genres. Do you think the strict sense of what a standard is, is becoming obsolete?

MH: I do like the idea that music that has been composed very recently can become part of the standard repertoire. Or that we can all cover each other’s compositions. I mean, tons of people are covering rock tunes. That’s been a popular thing, doing jazz versions of Radiohead or Bjork. But I like the idea that it’s wide open and if you’re covering something, it could be anything.  

TJG: Several years ago, you told the New York Times that you “don’t enjoy jazz guitar in general.” Do you still stand by that?

MH: No. I think I did have a phase where I didn’t really enjoy it. But recently I have enjoyed a lot of jazz guitar.

TJG: What brought you back?

MH: Maybe discovering Johnny Smith, who’s just incredible. I think sometimes you need a break from things. But there’s so much guitar music happening now, and so many different guitarists that I love: Joe Morris, Mark Ribot, Brandon Seabrook… Julian Lage and Nels Cline, their duo record is awesome. So I think that phase is over.

The Mary Halvorson Octet plays The Jazz Gallery on Tuesday, December 15th and Wednesday, December 16th, 2015. The group features Ms. Halvorson on guitar, Jonathan Finalyson on trumpet, Jon Irabagon on alto saxophone, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor saxophone, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Susan Alcorn on pedal steel guitar, John Hebert on bass, and Ches Smith on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $15 general admission ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.