Guitarist Mary Halvorson has gained attention for her dextrous improvisation, her unique, prickly sound sound, and her intricate compositions, which range from solo guitar music to works for bands of 8+. Code Girl, the new project she will debut at The Jazz Gallery as part of the 2016 Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions, features longtime bandmates Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums), as well as trumpet player Ambrose Akinmusire and singer Amirtha Kidambi. We spoke with Halvorson this week about the project’s multifaceted inspirations and the new challenges she posed for herself in writing it.
The Jazz Gallery: You’re both a guitarist and a composer, and your sound on the guitar is particularly unique. How do you feel your composition affects your performance, and vice versa?
Mary Halvorson: I definitely think of the two things as related. The composing, for me, comes first when I’m thinking about this group, and then based on what I write, that sets up a mood or a tone for the improvisation. So I definitely think about them as related, but I try to leave the compositions open enough that the improvisation has room to grow, and so the composition won’t necessarily happen the same way every time.
TJG: How much does improvisation play a role in the compositional process for you?
MH: It plays a pretty big role. Usually when I start to compose, I start by just improvising on the guitar. So I’ll sit down on the guitar and start improvising until I come up with something which I think could be an idea, or a theme for a composition, and then I’ll start writing stuff down, and I’ll sort of develop an idea, but it always comes from an improvisational space for me. In the case of this group, which has lyrics, I had written the lyrics first, so I wrote the lyrics and then when I sat down to compose the music I would start improvising on guitar but also singing. So I’d be singing some of the lyrics and then develop the composition in that way.
TJG: So you were writing the lyrics also.
TJG: What was your thought process for composing for this band?
MH: It’s a pretty different project for me, and this is the first time I’ve written for a group with a singer, though I have had a couple groups in the past where I sung a little bit, and I’ve written a few lyrics in the past. But this is the first group where I have a dedicated singer, and I’m writing all the lyrics myself. So just because of that, it’s been a little bit of a different process. And like I described, I would write the lyrics first and then build the compositions around the lyrics, so the song structure around the vocal structure, if that makes sense.
TJG: Do you think of the voice as separate from a melodic instrument, in that case? Or is it just a melody line?
MH: I guess I think about it as both, because I’m definitely thinking about melody quite a bit. But then also because it’s expressing words, for me it does take on a different role and a different focus from the instruments. In a way I’m thinking, although deeper, highly improvisational lines, also thinking of them as songs, like you would have a folk song. So sort of combining those elements.
TJG: How do you feel your role changes as a bandleader versus a band member?
MH: It’s pretty different. As a band member, you’re often trying to figure out what it is the composer wants, and what their vision is, and how you can help shape that vision. In which case as a bandleader, I’m the one directing that process a little more. Although with a new band like this I often don’t know exactly what it’s going to sound like, and don’t know exactly what I want, and sometimes those things take shape as you begin rehearsing and as you begin the process of forming the band. So it’s fun for me, it opens a lot of unknowns.
I have a vision of what I think the group’s going to sound like, and sometimes it ends up being a little different than what you would think. In the case of this band, the rhythm section contains an existing band, which is called Thumbscrew, which is a collective group I’m a part of, actually which I’m on the road with right now, which is me, Michael Formanek on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. So one of my goals in putting together this group was to have an existing unit within the group that’s already played together a lot and that already has a sound as a unit. I thought it’d be helpful, even though it’s a new group, to have that rhythm section as a strong foundation. So that’s one of the things I thought of. It also helps you know, or have an idea of what the music might sound like. But of course you’re adding all these new elements on top of it, trumpet and voice.
TJG: What has been most surprising about this band?
MH: Well these are gonna be the first performances, so I’m not sure yet! [Laughs] I’m really looking forward to it. It’s still very new to me, so I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.
TJG: The name of the project is Code Girl. What does it mean?
MH: Well that came from when I was on the road with Anthony Braxton, and he had said that phrase, sort of in passing, “Code Girl.” I thought it was kind of cool, and I wrote it down. This is during a time when I was writing a lot of stuff down in a notebook, because I was working on lyrics and stuff like that. So I’d written down the phrase, and then I had sort of forgotten about it and went back to it later and thought it was a cool name for a band. Partly because of the lyrical content, a lot of it is a little mysterious, and it’s coded, so I thought it was an interesting title that kind of worked with the band, but it was also a fun way for me to put in a little nod to Anthony Braxton.
TJG: You studied with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan and then went on to be a member in several of his bands. Can you talk about your relationship as a student and a colleague of his?
MH: Well he’s been one of my musical mentors, and most influential musicians. I really believe I wouldn’t be a musician today if it weren’t for him and weren’t for his encouragement and inspiration. I studied with him at college, took a bunch of classes with him and studied his music a lot, and played a lot of his music, and I ended up, after graduating, playing in a bunch of his bands. So he’s been a really important person to me and continues to be a real inspiration for me as a musician. I think a lot of his influence, even if my music doesn’t sound like his, I think a lot of the influence is more indirect, but it’s still there in subtle ways. He’s just a really brilliant composer and all-around inspirational person. And actually it’s his birthday today! [Laughs] Fun fact.
TJG: Oh, yay! Happy birthday! On another note, what have you been listening to recently?
MH: For the past couple years, I’ve been on a real Elliott Smith kick, which is maybe part of the inspiration for putting together a group with a singer. So that’s one thing I’ve been listening to a lot. I’ve also, in the past week or two, had kind of a resurgence of listening to [jazz guitarist] Johnny Smith, and I’ve had a couple friends find Johnny Smith vinyl and CDs for me, so I’ve been listening a bunch to him—a particular solo record of his, which is really incredible.
Mary Halvorson and Code Girl plays at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11, 2016. The group features Ms. Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass, Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, and Amirtha Kidambi on vocals. Sets are 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.