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Sunday, July 17, 2022

Mary Halvorson - Amaryllis and Belladonna (Nonesuch, 2022)


By Gary Chapin

It’s hard for me not to think of these two as a set. They are released separately in CD format, with themed covers, on the same day, with overlapping personnel, and a vibe that travels from the beginning of one to the end of the other. I threw these into a playlist, just the two of them, and have been basking ever since. Both albums are also released as a double vinyl in a single sleeve. 

Mary Halvorson is someone I have marveled at a lot this year. I’m not sure why I wasn’t ready before then. Though I got in on the ground floor of her recording career (Anthony Braxton’s Quartet[Moscow], from 2008), it wasn’t until 2021 (yikes) that I was like, this Mary Halvorson is everywhere and she elevates every setting she is in.

Amaryllis has got a downtown vibe to it. It has the variety of voices, the easy switch between out and hip jazz, and the big group arrangements that bring all of it together in a jazz and cinematic way. I’ve used the word “vibe” twice, and the vibraphone on Amaryllis proves a point I asserted a few months ago, “Everything this music is, is more so on vibes.” If it’s dissonant, it’s more dissonant with vibes. If it swings, it swings harder with vibes. If it’s hip, it’s more hip with vibes. 

But great trumpet, great trombone, and great rhythm don’t change the fact that Halvorson herself is the center of the wizardry. For a while I was fixated on how—HOW?—she does what she does, and it is worth wondering about, just like Frisell in the early ‘80s. After a while, that fever calmed down because, really, does it matter? Even if you do know the answer—invariably, with guitars, it has something to do with pedals—it isn’t the answer that makes her voice so incredibly distinctive and ensorcelling. That little, addictive pitch-bend-thing (excuse the technical term) she does throughout isn’t great because of the pedal, but because of Halvorson’s way of using it.

A few tracks before the end of Amaryllis, the string quartet shows up and the vibe starts to drift. This is the overlapping region of the Venn Diagram between the two records. From such a large group, Halvorson’s sense of drama, lyricism, and harmony truly shine. Extended chords are an amazing thing when you have so many instruments to extend them for you.

Crossing into Belladonna, a set of five tunes, the space becomes something more transcendent. Early contender for my album of the year. The setup is a concerto like relationship between the composed string quartet and Halvorson’s improvisations. I see these two as a set, as I said, but if I had to pick one—I don’t though, and neither do you--it would be Belladonna (but the vinyl release solves the issue too). 

The settings Halvorson writes for the strings are masterpieces of evocation. The quartet functions almost as a Greek chorus, setting the scene, directing priorities, and even interacting with the lead (which, since she is improvising and they are not, is remarkable). This is a storytelling affair with dark stories. Sometimes dark humor. Sometimes dark dark.

The second track, Moonburn, has the quartet in a Samuel Barber place, slow lament, while Halvorson monologues over it. Telling her tale in way that Russian novelists would understand. It’s that kind of lyricism. The track breaks upon you like a wave.

Aside from Mary Halvorson (guitar), we’ve got Patricia Brennan (vibraphone), Nick Dunston (bass), Tomas Fujiwara (drums), Jacob Garchik (trombone), and Adam O’Farrill (trumpet).

The Mivos String Quartet is Olivia De Prato (violin), Maya Bennardo (violin), Victor Lowrie Tafoya (viola), and Tyler J. Borden (cello).


Lee said...

Nice overview, Gary. Just to note, Mary's recording career started before her albums with Braxton, under People (her group with Kevin Shea), in her duo with Jessica Pavone, and in small groups lead by Mike Pride and Trevor Dunn. Around the time she started appearing on Braxton albums, she was also on Taylor Ho Bynum's first set of sextet albums. The Taylor-Mary-Tomas connection runs deep and strong.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I'm throwing a bottle into the sea, but who knows, maybe you have the answer to a question that's been nagging at me: what song is Mary Halvorson inspired by in Side Effect in Amaryllis? My memory fails me, even if it leads me to think that it would be a Robert Wyatt song. Any ideas? Thanks!