Mary Halvorson’s band keeps getting bigger—and better | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Mary Halvorson’s band keeps getting bigger—and better 

The New York guitarist brings her daring but sophisticated octet to Chicago for the first time.

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Mary Halvorson (center) and her octet: Jon Irabagon, Susan Alcorn, Ches Smith, Ingrid Laubrock, Jacob Garchik, Jonathan Finlayson, and John Hebert - KELLY JENSEN
  • Mary Halvorson (center) and her octet: Jon Irabagon, Susan Alcorn, Ches Smith, Ingrid Laubrock, Jacob Garchik, Jonathan Finlayson, and John Hebert
  • Kelly Jensen

Over the past decade or so, New York-based guitarist Mary Halvorson has built a strong case for herself as one of the most distinctive and original improvisers of her time. Her voluminous discography reveals a strong collaborative instinct, enabled by her probing curiosity and almost offhanded versatility. Just this year she's appeared in recordings featuring a wide range of instrumental combinations: a collective with fellow guitarists Elliott Sharp and Marc Ribot on Err Guitar, a trio with pianist Jason Moran and cornetist Ron Miles on Bangs, and a duo with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier on Crop Circles. (Moran headlines Friday night's festival lineup with a celebration of Thelonious Monk.)

Mary Halvorson Octet
Sat 9/2, 3:30 PM, Von Freeman Pavilion

Halvorson has also been a key member of several Chicago-­oriented combos, including Tomeka Reid's current quartet and Mike Reed's Living by Lanterns, a Sun Ra-­inspired project that united diverse factions of the New York and Chicago jazz communities. Her clean, biting sound, often warped by deft manipulation of her trusty Line 6 delay pedal, is instantly recognizable, but what really sets her apart are her ears. She's a superb listener, absorbing and responding to what her collaborators do, no matter the context.

"A big part of how I've grown and continue to grow as a musician is through people I work with, by learning or being inspired by different bandleaders," Halvorson says. "It's not about people giving me feedback, but seeing what works and what doesn't—and it's challenging to learn a lot of different music and make it work. I don't think I ever aspire to only do my own music, because I really enjoy working with other bandleaders, and I've been lucky to work with some pretty amazing ones—I've learned so much that way."

The groups Halvorson has led herself demonstrate the depth of this education, beginning with the 2008 debut album by a knotty trio with drummer Ches Smith and bassist John Hebert, titled Dragon's Head. That band forms the nucleus of a consistently expanding ensemble that continues to serve as her primary vehicle for composition-oriented playing. First it became a quintet, then a septet, then an octet—which last year released the stunning Away With You (Firehouse 12). That group makes its Chicago debut at the Jazz Festival—only the second time it's performed outside New York.

Driven by a burgeoning interest in writing for horns and an abiding love for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Halvorson brought in saxophonists Jon Irabagon and Ingrid Laubrock, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and trombonist Jacob Garchik. "Up until that time as a leader I had only written for a trio, so I was curious to compose for larger group," she says. "I really enjoyed it, and I think that's why I kept adding people. It doesn't mean I'm done with the trio—in fact, the trio is playing at the Stone in January, and it hasn't played for many years."

Halvorson's band became on octet when she recruited pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. "After the septet I thought I was done adding people, but then I met Susan and those plans went out the window," she says. "I thought it would be crazy not to incorporate pedal steel into the group, because it's such a shape-shifting instrument with a huge range. I was thinking about the possibilities of her playing lines with the horns, or to play chords with me or play something with the bass—there's just so much she can do with that instrument."

Away With You is not only the group's first recording with Alcorn but also Halvorson's peak to date as a bandleader: it couches her indelible themes in sophisticated arrangements marked by slaloming countermelodies, rich harmonic shadings, and gorgeous voicings, but still gives her sublime musicians space to improvise.  v

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