Mary Halvorson is a guitarist, ensemble leader, and composer who continually pushes against established musical categories with a signature instrumental sound and an aesthetic that evolves with each album and musical configuration. She melds deep jazz roots with experimental rock, folk, and other musical traditions, reflecting a wide range of stylistic influences. Halvorson began her recording career as a member of jazz-rock quartet Friendly Bears in 2002. Two years later, as a member of Anthony Braxton's group, she appeared on Quintet (London) 2004, and she established herself as a leader in duo with violinist Jessica Pavone on 2005′s Prairies; they have continued working together. In 2008, after playing on projects by other bandleaders, she issued her debut trio offering, Dragon's Head, on Firehouse 12. Halvorson debuted her quintet on 2010′s Saturn Sings, and followed it in 2012 with Bending Bridges. A year later, Illusionary Sea showcased her septet. She joined the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet and the Tom Rainey Trio. In 2014, she co-founded Thumbscrew with Tomas Fujiwara and Michael Formanek; their self-titled debut appeared from Cuneiform. She released the solo guitar outing Meltframe a year later. Mary Halvorson's Code Girl appeared in 2018; the double-length set was titled for a band she’d founded with vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, Formanek, Fujiwara, and Ambrose Akinmusire. One of the year’s most acclaimed jazz releases, it cemented the nomination and award of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2019.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, in 1980, Halvorson began her musical education on the violin before gravitating to the guitar after she heard Jimi Hendrix. Initially she wanted to be a rock musician. Her first teacher was a jazz player, so she switched her direction. She maintains her identification with “jazz” with some ambivalence, and rightfully so, since her playing exists outside genres. She achieved a B.S. in Music from Wesleyan University, and moved to Brooklyn, New York, in 2002, where she continued at the New School of Jazz & Contemporary Music. In Brooklyn, she connected with an impressive array of veteran musicians steeped in the contemporary new music tradition, including Anthony Braxton, who enlisted her as a member of his various ensembles. Other prominent collaborators have included Jessica Pavone, Taylor Ho Bynum, Tim Berne, Trevor Dunn, Assif Tsahar, Matana Roberts, Ted Reichman, Stephen Haynes, Curtis Hasselbring, Jason Moran, Tony Malaby, Nicole Mitchell, Elliott Sharp, and John Tchicai. Aside from performing, Halvorson has also taught at the New School, and conducted workshops in the School for Improvised Music.
Her recordings as leader include Opulence for the UgExplode label in duet with San Francisco drummer Weasel Walter and Calling All Portraits on Skycap in 2008, and Thin Air for Thirsty Ear and the critically acclaimed Dragon's Head on Firehouse 12 with bassist John Herbert and drummer Ches Smith in 2009. That same year, Halvorson and her group released the album Crackleknob. In 2011, she returned with her second duo recording with violinist Jessica Pavone, Departure of Reason. The following year, she released the quintet date Bending Bridges and joined trumpeter Peter Evans and drummer Walter for the trio effort Mechanical Malfunction.
Ever prolific, Halvorson stayed busy over the next few years releasing a handful of projects including the 2013 septet album Illusionary Sea, the 2014 eponymous debut of the Thumbscrew trio with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and her 2015 solo effort Meltframe. That year, she also joined drummer Tom Rainey and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock for the trio album Hotel Grief. In 2016, Halvorson was back with bassist Formanek and drummer Fujiwara for Thumbscrew’s sophomore outing, Convallaria. Also that year, she delivered the octet album Away with You. Her next project, 2017′s Err Guitar, saw her working as part of an experimental guitar trio with Marc Ribot and Elliott Sharp.
In the meantime, Halvorson formed a new band for her next recording and performance project featuring her Thumbscrew collaborators Formanek and Fujiwara, as well as trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi from the New York improv unit Elder Ones — classically trained in both the Indian carnatic and Western classical traditions. Halvorson, inspired by Robert Wyatt and Elliott Smith, and American postmodern poets, had been writing lyrics for years, and previously performed them in an avant-folk duo with Jessica Pavone and in the band People with Kyle Foster and Kevin Shea.
Code Girl, a double-length project, went further. Musically it crisscrossed the many genres she’d already explored as a composer and arranger, but wove them into winding, labyrinthine songs that utilized those skills juxtaposed with her band’s keen improvisational capabilities. The album was issued in the spring of 2018 on Firehouse 12 as the quintet toured Europe with Adam O’Farrill standing in for and Akinmusire. The year proved prolific: Halvorson released three duo albums: The Maid with the Flaxen Hair: A Tribute to Johnny Smith with guitarist Bill Frisell on Tzadik, Seed Triangular with flutist Robbie Lee on New Amsterdam, and Traversing Orbits with guitarist Joe Morris on Rogue Art. In addition, Thumbscrew issued two albums simultaneously, Theirs (a collection of covers) and Ours (originals). She also contributed a reading of “With a Little Help from My Friends” to Verve’s Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band tribute compilation, A Day in the Life: Impressions of Pepper, and played on recordings by Maria Grand (Magdalena on Biophilia) and Ingrid Laubrock (Contemporary Chaos Practices on Intakt).
Halvorson was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 2019; she was not yet 40. She toured extensively with Code Girl and as a member of steel guitar master Susan Alcorn’s quintet for much of the year. In January and February 2020, Thumbscrew issued their fourth long-player, The Anthony Braxton Project, comprised entirely of its namesake’s works. Issued in July, it preceded the October issue of Artlessly Falling, the second offering by Mary Halvorson's Code Girl. With O’Farrill as a full-time member, the band expanded to a sextet when they enlisted saxophonist and vocalist Maria Grand. Co-produced by the guitarist, Nick Lloyd, and David Breskin, the album’s focus was split between Halvorson’s songs and poems. Robert Wyatt appeared as a guest of three of the record’s eight tracks. In November, Relative Pitch released Pedernal by the Susan Alcorn Quintet. It featured the virtuoso pedal steel guitar improviser and Halvorson in the company of violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Ryan Sawyer. ~ Michael G. Nastos and Thom Jurek