Mary Halvorson: Variety and Contrast

by Troy Collins

Mary Halvorson                                                                                                   Courtesy of Kelly Jensen

Brooklyn-based guitarist Mary Halvorson has come into her own as an acclaimed composer and improviser since the 2008 release of Dragon’s Head (Firehouse 12), the debut of her longstanding trio with bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith. Since then, Halvorson has established herself as an inventive tunesmith and respected bandleader, with ensembles that range in size up to octet. In addition to leading her own projects, Halvorson also co-leads a chamber-jazz duo with violist Jessica Pavone, the avant-rock band People with drummer Kevin Shea, and Secret Keeper with bassist Stephan Crump, as well as maintaining memberships in collectives like Thumbscrew and Reverse Blue. A tireless side-person, she also regularly plays in the bands of peers like Taylor Ho Bynum and Tomas Fujiwara, and Downtown veterans such as Tim Berne and Marc Ribot.

Halvorson studied at Wesleyan University under Anthony Braxton and later at the New School, but it was her appearance on 2004’s Sister Phantom Owl Fish (Ipecac), the visceral sophomore album of bassist Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant, that brought her to the attention of a wider audience. Her subsequent tours as a member of Braxton’s various ensembles firmly established her as a singular talent in the world of creative improvised music, well before becoming a bandleader herself.

Meltframe is Halvorson’s first unaccompanied solo album. A stripped-down recording of eclectic covers devoid of overdubs or studio manipulation, it presents her artistry at its most pure and straightforward, especially on a handful of melancholy ballads, including heartbreaking renditions of Ornette Coleman’s “Sadness” and Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.” Ranging from the bittersweet lanquidity of Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino” to a radical deconstruction of McCoy Tyner’s “Aisha,” Halvorson’s original interpretations of established masterworks is as varied and revealing as her takes on contemporary tunes written by her peers, like Fujiwara and Chris Lightcap. Conducted concurrently with the release of Meltframe, I interviewed Halvorson during the summer of 2015.


Troy Collins: You’ve become a ubiquitous presence in the New York scene since moving to Brooklyn in 2002, but some earlier biographical information might be of interest to readers unfamiliar with your background. I’ve heard that your first instrument was the violin, but that all changed when you heard Jimi Hendrix. Can you elaborate?

Mary Halvorson: I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts (right outside of Boston). In the second grade I picked up violin, basically because all my friends were playing violin. I studied for about five years, went to music camps, played in youth orchestras. I used to practice quite a bit, but I never really excelled at it and my heart wasn’t in it. I think playing classical music just wasn’t for me.

I remember at some point during elementary school a woman visited our music class and taught everyone to play a few basic chords on acoustic guitar: C, D, G. I liked guitar, and that simple experience stuck in my head. Then, around seventh grade, I started discovering Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and the Allman Brothers. I was also into The Beach Boys (Surfin’ USA was my first cassette tape) and the Smashing Pumpkins! But Hendrix was probably my biggest fixation at the time. He is such a unique, powerful and influential musician; it’s amazing how many guitarists I know spanning so many generations started playing guitar because of Hendrix. My aunt had an acoustic guitar stored in our attic and I used that to start teaching myself Hendrix songs out of guitar tablature books. I remember teaching myself the intro to “Little Wing,” “The Wind Cries Mary” and “Purple Haze.”

When it became clear that guitar was more than just a passing interest, my parents got me a cheap black and white Stratocaster. They encouraged me to take lessons, and the teacher who came recommended, Issi Rozen, happened to be a jazz guitarist. He was a great teacher and I studied with him weekly for probably six years. He began teaching me jazz, which motivated me to start exploring some of the classic jazz records my dad played around the house: Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I didn’t really get it at first; I remember liking the melodies but getting bored when the solos started happening. Still, something must have drawn me in because I couldn’t stop listening to those records, and gradually became more and more taken with them. I made some friends in high school who liked jazz. Early on, one of them made me a mix tape with Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy. I still have that cassette tape. Meanwhile Issi continued to teach me jazz standards on guitar, and I soon discovered Wes Montgomery. It was a very gradual process of discovery. My friends and I would drive down to the Newport Jazz Festival every summer, camp out rain or shine, and check out absolutely everything on the festival.

After High School I went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut. I was really into biology and planned on pursuing science as a career, but Wesleyan also had a great music program, and I knew that Anthony Braxton taught there. I didn’t know much about him before attending school, other than a duet recording I had of him and Derek Bailey, live at Victoriaville. I loved that record. Still, I had no idea what a huge impact Braxton would have until I went there and actually met him! I had dropped all my science classes within the first semester.

TC: What is the most important thing you feel you learned from Braxton?

MH: It’s really hard to narrow it down to just one thing! So I might cheat and mention a few things. When I first met Anthony and started taking his classes at age 17, his music inspired me deeply (and it still does today). During those early years as a student he constantly encouraged me to explore, and to get out of my comfort zone. He encouraged mistakes, and encouraged taking risks even if it meant failing. His musical universe is and was so expansive and diverse, and seeing the scope of what he’s done and how he continues to change and evolve is inspiring in itself. He is fearless, and makes no compromises. In my mind, all kinds of boundaries started dissolving. Anthony also taught me to value musical tradition of all kinds, to be open-minded, and to check out absolutely everything. He never qualified one kind of music as “better” than another kind. And maybe most importantly, he gave me the courage to pursue music as a career. When I was 19 and trying to decide if I should become a musician, I really wanted to but just didn’t think I could pull it off. Fortunately, I had Anthony, and my guitar teacher Joe Morris (Joe was the other really important figure during my college years) pushing me to go for it. I needed that.

TC: Were you already familiar with Morris’ work when you first began studying with him?

MH: I was. Another Wesleyan musician knew about him and lent me a CD, Joe Morris and William Parker’s Invisible Weave. I was instantly floored by Joe’s guitar playing; I’d never heard anything like it. I was probably a sophomore at Wesleyan at the time. My friends and I used to drive down to New York often to hear concerts; two hours each way. So one night we drove down to hear Joe and William perform duo at Roulette (this was back when Roulette was on West Broadway in TriBeCa). The concert was incredible. Afterwards I got a chance to speak with Joe and asked him for lessons. He lived near Boston at the time, so I would drive to his house to take lessons there, and shortly after he moved to Connecticut which was great, because my commute to study with him was shorter. I took several lessons with Joe during my time at Wesleyan.

Joe is an incredible teacher. I know a lot of musicians who have studied with him over the years. I’ve asked several of them what they did in their lessons with Joe. Every single of one of them told me something different. In my lessons, we mainly used to improvise together, with Joe playing upright bass. He really encouraged me, as I mentioned before, and helped me find a voice on the instrument. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today without Joe, and I feel lucky to have had him as a mentor. He was nice enough to play guitar duos with me at my senior recital at Wesleyan, and we continue to play together today in various contexts. He’s one of the most original and inspiring guitarists I’ve ever heard. In fact just last month I got the chance to hear him perform a concert in Amsterdam which I haven’t stopped thinking about since.

TC: Were you aware of any other female jazz guitarists when you decided to become a musician at age 19?

MH: None other than Emily Remler. People were always asking me if I knew about her so I checked out her music when I was in high school, and really enjoyed it. She was the first female jazz guitarist I ever heard. However, I didn’t have many female role models as a young musician, with the exception of my saxophone teacher Diane Wernick (I studied alto saxophone for a year in high school). Diane is a great player and teacher and we’re still in touch; she teaches at Berklee now. Saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom was another important figure for me. I studied with her when I attended the New School Jazz program for a year in 2000. Jane’s music has been very influential, and she was always incredibly supportive. I played in her Ornette Coleman ensemble at the New School, and I remember one day she asked her friend Jim Hall to come by and listen to us rehearse. She had us learn all the Ornette tunes by ear which nobody else was doing at school; we were all used to reading everything off charts. That was a great lesson. When I moved back to New York in 2002, she asked me to play a gig with her band at Tonic. That was one of my first gigs in New York and meant a lot to me. So, I guess you could say I had female saxophone player role models, but no female guitar role models! I am pleased to see that things are changing, and there are so many more women playing jazz today than when I started. I have had several really incredible female guitar students over the past ten years. (I feel it’s important to point out that when I was growing up, there of course were other women playing jazz guitar, I just didn’t have the good fortune to meet them.) Back then I was usually the only one in my circles; these days it’s not uncommon for me to play in bands where women outnumber men.

TC: It is certainly refreshing to see more gender diversity nowadays – and it’s about time. But not so long ago, that wasn’t yet the case. What was it like coming up through the ranks as a young female jazz guitarist? Did you ever encounter any obstacles?

MH: There were definitely obstacles, but mostly minor ones: the occasional person not taking me seriously and/or assuming I couldn’t play. I remember one instance of taking a guitar lesson with a well-known teacher in Boston. I walked into the lesson and he took one look at me and said “you know you can’t make a living doing this.” Another teacher, upon first meeting me, asked me in a really condescending voice whether I knew how to play a C7 chord. (He only asked me; he didn’t ask any of the guys in the class). Fortunately, my reaction was to work even harder in order to prove people like that wrong.

I still get annoying comments occasionally, even now. My favorite is when I walked into a guitar center in Alabama in my mid-twenties and the guy working there said “are you here to get something for your boyfriend?” I was so shocked that I unfortunately didn’t think of anything clever to say until it was too late. A lot of these incidents are actually laughable. Guitarist Amanda Monaco and I compared notes and were practically in tears laughing when we realized we’d gotten all the same irritating comments over the years: “you really play with balls!”, “you play circles around so many guys!” etc. I think it’s important to have a sense of humor and not let these things get the better of you.

TC: Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take a long time for those sort of patriarchal attitudes to change. In other genres of music (from classical to rock), one can find countless examples of women playing the guitar, but not in jazz. Being one of the few female jazz guitarists currently working, do you have any insight into why there are so few women playing jazz on the guitar?

MH: I’ve given this quite a bit of thought and I really don’t know why. Maybe it has to do with there being so few female role models for young women interested in pursuing jazz guitar. Maybe it’s less appealing for young women starting out when it feels like a “boys club.” Regardless of the reason, the momentum is definitely shifting, and I’m happy about that.

TC: On a more positive note, the influence of a supportive family occasionally seems under-recognized in relation to the development of creative artists; can you talk a little about your album covers and song titles as they relate to your father, for example?

MH: My father is a visual artist (painter, sculptor) but decided to pursue the more “practical” path of landscape architecture as a career. Although architecture is certainly creative, I think part of him still wishes he had gone down the visual arts path. Part of his support of me becoming a musician may be a result of his feeling that way. Both my parents have always been very supportive of my career choice, and I feel very lucky in that regard as I know it’s somewhat unusual. They both really love music and come down to New York often to hear concerts. My dad listens to a lot of jazz and my mother used to sing in a choir when she was younger. Since retiring they have traveled as far as the Netherlands, Germany and Austria to check out music.

Recently my father set up a painting studio in his house and has been doing a lot more art. Another thing he loves to do is write poetry, and in more recent years, song titles. He fills entire notebooks with song titles and gives them to me as suggestions to use for my various bands. The songs for the band Reverse Blue are made up almost entirely of my father’s titles. What’s interesting is how similar our approach is to titling songs. These days I don’t even differentiate between titles my father came up with and titles I came up with, and often I can’t even remember what’s what.

A few of my albums on the Firehouse 12 label (Dragon’s Head, Saturn Sings, Illusionary Sea) incorporate pencil sketches that my father drew. The sketch on the cover of Dragon’s Head is from a postcard he mailed me when I was in college. It was a drawing of a three headed man and the only text on the postcard was “saw a three headed man sitting on a wall, couldn’t sneak up on him.” Saturn Sings is a detailed architectural drawing he did of my Guild Artist Award for a flight case. Illusionary Sea is a line drawing from another postcard, a stick figure on a swing; I decided it was a stick figure on a swing over water.

TC: Since moving to NYC, you’ve made the acquaintance of a number of high-profile musicians, including Tim Berne, Nels Cline, and Marc Ribot, the latter of whom hired you for two of his most recent bands: Sun Ship, and The Young Philadelphians. How did you first meet Ribot?

MH: I’ve always been a huge fan of Marc’s guitar playing. During my time at Wesleyan I used to drive down to New York often to see shows at Tonic and the Knitting Factory. I remember seeing Cubanos Postizos and a few of Marc’s other projects, and starting to check out his records too. I think Marc is one of the most innovative, unique and uncompromising guitarists I know.

I eventually met him through my good friend and frequent collaborator Ches Smith, who plays drums in Marc’s band Ceramic Dog. Ches introduced me (this was probably back in 2006) because I wanted to ask Marc to be part of a month of performances I was curating at the Stone in February 2007, which included a week-long guitar festival. Ches, Marc and I ended up playing a trio set during that week.

TC: I addition to Ribot, you’ve also played alongside Nels Cline, Evan O’Reilly and Brandon Seabrook, among other guitarists. Do you find any unique challenges playing in a small ensemble with another guitarist, as opposed to say a pianist or other chord-based instrumentalist?

MH: I’m not sure about specific challenges, but I can say that I love playing with other guitarists. There are so many great guitarists making interesting music right now, and all with incredibly different sounds and approaches. The guitar by nature is such a diverse and shape shifting instrument ... it permeates so many genres of music and there are just so many styles and voices. Therefore having two guitars alongside each other can really bring out the differences – and innate similarities – and create a really cool mesh of sounds and contrasts. Playing with other guitarists often brings me to musical zones which I may not have gotten to otherwise. One of my favorite examples of a two guitar project is Nels Cline and Julian Lage’s duo (check out their excellent CD, Room) which really highlights some of these contrasts. And yet they still sound like one instrument together, one enormous guitar.

TC: Speaking of enormous guitars (at least metaphorically), you recently toured with King Buzzo of the Melvins, as the opener for his solo acoustic tour, having previously opened for the Melvins years ago as a member of Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant. How did those shows compare to your usual gigs?

MH: King Buzzo’s guitar certainly sounds enormous! The power and energy he creates during his solo performances with just voice and acoustic guitar is extraordinary. King Buzzo and the Melvins have had a big impact on me. When I first toured with Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant opening for the Melvins, I was 24 years old and it my first real extensive tour (we did a loop around the entire US over the course of a month). I didn’t grow up listening to the Melvins like some of my friends did, so a lot of it was new to me, and the music was really influential. I never got sick of listening to them play, in fact I listened to their set pretty much every night for a month. Playing with Trevor’s band during that tour was pretty different than playing for a sit-down jazz audience I was more accustomed to. A wilder energy, less predictable. Trio-Convulsant is musically very different from the Melvins and it was an interesting challenge playing night after night for a crowd who wasn’t necessarily there to hear us, and many of whom were hearing music like that for the first time. A lot of the audience probably hated it or could care less, but some loved it. Which makes it totally worthwhile. It was similar when I opened for Buzz solo last summer. Our sets could not have been more different, and I think that’s part of why Buzz had me play.

TC: In regards to touring, I assume at this point you earn a living based solely off your performances? Do you ever have to do any sort of session work or commercial gigs to make ends meet?

MH: I had a full time office job for the first four years I lived in New York, at an architecture firm in Chinatown. I saved up some money during those years, and eventually had enough music work that I was able to quit my job. I remember that I quit on boss’ day in 2006, which also happens to be my birthday! Though I still did part time work as a bookkeeper for a couple years after that. It certainly isn’t easy. But to answer your question I’ve never really done any session work or commercial gigs and for the past several years I have been making a living on music (which ends up being a combination of gigs, tours, recordings and some teaching).

TC: Let’s talk about your latest album. Why did you chose all covers instead of your own compositions?

MH: Simply because I felt zero inspiration to compose music for solo guitar, and I wasn’t interested in making an all-improvised record. So I guess you could say it was a process of elimination! I often practice jazz standards on guitar, and I thought it could be an interesting challenge to create solo guitar renditions of some of my favorite tunes. Later I expanded this idea to include any song that I like, ranging from songs that I started listening to as a teenager (“Cascades” by Oliver Nelson, “Solitude” by Duke Ellington, “Aisha” by McCoy Tyner), to songs I loved during my college years (“Blood” by Annette Peacock, “Ida Lupino” by Carla Bley, “Sadness” by Ornette Coleman, “Leola” by Roscoe Mitchell) to songs by friends and contemporaries (“Platform” by Chris Lightcap, “When” by Tomas Fujiwara, “Cheshire Hotel” by Noël Akchotë). There are several other compositions too, which I do as part of my live set but which did not make it on the record. Basically, songs would pop into my head at random and I’d think about whether they would work for solo guitar, and if so, how. I used different methods for the arrangements. Some of them I played pretty simply, while others I deconstructed quite a bit. Sometimes I wrote my own chord changes to existing melodies, and other times I improvised chord progressions on the spot. Forms were followed, altered, and abandoned. In other words I tried to create as much variety and contrast as possible within the parameter of solo guitar.

TC: I find the sequencing remarkable; from the metallic reinterpretation of “Cascades” as a show-stopping opener, to the seamless transitions between ballads like “Sadness,” “Solitude” and “Ida Lupino,” it sounds as though you put some serious thought into the album’s flow. Was this a deliberate decision or merely a happy coincidence?

MH: The sequencing was mostly decided by Ches, who helped produce the record. I was having a lot of trouble deciding on a sequence that made sense, and he came up with that basic outline for the order, which we then tweaked together. Sometimes having an extra set of ears can be a really good thing!

TC: Well, you and Ches seem to have made some wise choices then. Is this selection the same basic repertoire you drew from when opening for King Buzzo?

MH: Basically the same repertoire, yes. Although there are a few songs I played during those live sets which didn’t make it on the record, including a couple Monk tunes (“Reflections” and “Ruby My Dear”), another Oliver Nelson (“Teenie’s Blues”), another Ellington (“I Got it Bad”), plus Churchill’s “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and a couple others. My idea is that the repertoire will be gradually changing and expanding over time.

TC: One of the most striking things about Meltframe (when comparing it to the rest of your recorded output), is the fact that it’s all covers. You’re an accomplished composer with a distinctive writing style, but for a change, it’s intriguing to hear your take on some well-known classics. For example, I find your version of “Ida Lupino” to be as beautiful as any I’ve ever heard, while your reconfiguration of “Aisha” is far more radical and experimental than I would have expected. Since your interpretations are so varied, do you ever work standards into the set lists of your various groups, and/or have you ever considered recording such material with any of those ensembles?

MH: Thus far, I have rarely done standards or covers with any other projects. There are a couple exceptions: Jessica Pavone and I have been doing some covers recently in our duo project (we did Hendrix’s “Bold as Love” and Dolphy’s “Something Sweet, Something Tender”). Those have not been recorded yet. Also, on my 2013 septet record, Illusionary Sea, I did a cover of Philip Catherine’s “Nairam.” But generally I do not perform covers with my various groups. For my solo record, doing all covers was a very specific concept and part of the idea was to have the interpretations be as varied as possible, so I’m glad that came across! Conceptually and sonically, the arrangements are very specific to solo playing so it’s probably unlikely I would try that material with a full band.

TC: Why did you decide to record the album all analog with no overdubs?

MH: I wanted the album to have more of a live feeling to it – as opposed to sounding super produced – so no overdubs felt like the way to go. As for the analog, that was Nick Lloyd’s (Firehouse 12 owner and engineer) idea. He’s an incredible engineer and has a lot of great analog equipment, and he was excited about recording directly to tape. I love the sound of analog and it just felt right, like it fit with the whole concept and approach.

TC: It certainly does have a spontaneous stripped-down feel to it, rather than sounding overly polished or like an excuse to use an endless variety of efx. I do want to ask you about one effect in particular however: your use of a Line 6 Delay pedal as a pitch-shifter gives you a very distinctive and immediately recognizable sound, but how did you first arrive at that?

MH: When I was around 20 years old I spent a year at the jazz program at the New School. At a certain point I went through a period of feeling pretty disillusioned with the guitar, so I decided to try out a bunch of effects pedals as a way to get out of the rut. I had never done much with pedals before that. One of the pedals I got was the Line 6 Delay. I remember playing around with it and noticing that it made a weird warping sound, almost like a glitch, when I moved the delay time knob mid-note. Eventually I got an expression (foot) pedal in order to be able to make that sound hands-free, which made it much easier to integrate in a seamless way.

TC: Many contemporary “jazz” guitarists seem prefer a fairly consistent tone, for example: Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and Marc Ribot all have a signature sound that is instantly recognizable within one note. Your guitar timbre on the other hand has a very broad dynamic range that alternates between a pure, almost acoustic tone and one heavily affected by efx. Was this a conscious decision?

MH: I have a fairly clean sound that I use most of the time, which is a blend of the acoustic tone of the guitar and a warm, dark amp sound. That part of it stays pretty consistent. I actually never use any reverb at all because I prefer a very dry sound. I often make custom tremolo with my volume pedal, or use various delays on the Line 6. I use a Rat distortion pedal as well.

In my mind the clean sound is sort of the “base” and all those other things (delay, tremolo, distortion) are ways to augment the sound or create contrast, accents or ornamentations. So, I guess the sum of these approaches does create a large dynamic range, but I think those others guitarists have that too. That’s one of the great things about the guitar; it’s so versatile and there’s such a wide range of possibilities, sound-wise.

TC: I agree, your clean tone is definitely what I would consider your signature sound, it’s just that your occasional combination of distortion, delay and tremolo can sometimes lend your instrument an otherworldly timbre that varies far more in its dynamic range than many other “jazz” guitarists.

The only other high-profile guitarist I can think of (right now) who uses a similar combination of efx to expand their palette quite as much is Jeff Parker. I mentioned Frisell, Metheny and Ribot as examples because they fit the sort of classic jazz guitar mold, where their use of effects subtly transforms their sound – a little extra distortion here or some delay there perhaps, but the base tone is still always the same. You (and Parker) have what I would consider a much broader palette of sound regularly available to you. Interestingly, both of you also work outside of traditional jazz circles, in genres that seem to value efx more.

This paradigm reminds me of Joe Morris’ recent hatOLOGY release Mess Hall, where he eschews his usual clean, single note runs in favor of distorted sheets of sound generated by a combination of efx pedals. Had I not known it was Morris’ record from the cover art, I don’t know that I would have guessed it was him playing, just from listening. Since he was a teacher of yours, I’m curious if you’ve heard it?

MH: I love Jeff Parker’s guitar playing, and he actually has one of my favorite guitar sounds. So that’s cool that you mentioned him.

As for that specific Joe Morris record, I actually haven’t heard it – I need to check it out – however I have heard Joe play with lots of distortion and effects before.

In fact there’s a band called Plymouth which Joe and pianist/keyboardist Jamie Saft co-lead, which also includes me, Chris Lightcap on electric bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. The band is very much electric and leans heavily towards noise, sounds and effects. In this context Joe unleashes insane walls of effects and distortion, in a really unique way. Anyone who hasn’t heard this side of Joe should definitely check it out. It’s pretty amazing what he does. To me it still sounds like Joe, just through a different filter.

TC: I guess that’s probably the best way to describe it, as “another side” of someone’s playing. Well said.

Moving on, in regards to composing for others, how do you initially approach writing for each of your ensembles? Do you typically write parts specifically geared towards your band mates’ strengths, or do you embrace a more egalitarian approach, where the tunes themselves are more open to interpretation by different groups of players?

MH: I like to compose for specific ensembles and specific individuals. For example if I sit down to compose a piece of music for my quintet, I am thinking about those musicians when I write. It often helps inspire me to hear their (musical) voices in my head. Sometimes I try to write to their strengths, and sometimes I try to write sections which might push people into different zones. My writing process is pretty improvisational, meaning I don’t plan a lot beforehand, and I try not to overthink things. I just sit down and write and see where it goes. Later, I’ll go back and revise, but initially, I find I get the best result when I just try to hear something that could work for the ensemble and get it down on paper right away.

TC: How do you deal with arrangements? Most of your ensembles (from trio to septet) feature the same core members, with each incrementally larger configuration adding extra musicians into the fold. Rumor has it you’ve also just expanded your septet to an octet; as an example, would the octet play rearranged pieces designed for a smaller lineup, or just new pieces you’ve written specifically for it?

MH: All those bands – trio, quintet, septet, octet – have completely different books of music, even though they involve many of the same players. The nice thing about having this expandable/collapsible format is I’ve been able to build a language and a rapport with these groups over time, starting from the trio and building. As the groups get larger, the expansion feels like a natural extension of an existing unit, as opposed to starting over with an entirely new project each time. I really appreciate longstanding bands ... of course there is always the excitement of newness, but there is also a certain element of chemistry which can only develop over time. It’s something I strive for in a lot of my musical projects.

TC: How do personal and stylistic dynamics shape the inner workings of your various groups?

MH: All the people in my bands are my friends. They are cool people, reliable and trustworthy, and I enjoy spending time with them outside of gigs and rehearsals. Those factors are important to me, because at this point in my life I have zero tolerance for musicians who are a pain in the ass. I feel lucky to be surrounded with such a strong and positive community of musicians. It’s often through playing music with my friends that I discover new concepts and ideas, which in turn helps me grow as a musician. All my bandmates bring something new and different to the table, since they are coming from very different places, they have strong individual voices and they all lead their own bands too.

As a bandleader I like to leave space for musicians to do what they want; that’s why I chose them for my bands in the first place. Although a lot of my music is highly structured, I am by no means a control freak and it’s nice to go off the grid sometimes. Over time, as you develop a rapport and language with a band, these kinds of left turns or deviations start to happen naturally. With bassist John Hébert, for example, who I have been playing with since 2007, it seems at this point he telepathically knows when to play the music on the page versus when to only sort of play it, versus when to completely get away from it. The way he makes these decisions and what he brings when he decides to go off the page can be pretty magical.

TC: From a fan’s perspective, it’s great to see how vibrant the creative improvised music scene has been over the past few years, despite the endless cries of “jazz is dead” in some factions of the press.

Speaking of which, how do you feel about studio recording compared to live performance and how does that affect your playing in each situation?

MH: Live performance and studio recordings are very different experiences, and I enjoy each experience for what it is. Live performance, to me, is all about energy, risks, spontaneity, putting everything you have into that one moment. Recording requires a different type of focus. More time is spent on small details; perfecting sounds, making decisions, taking pause to craft something. Because of the different mindsets required, playing music in a studio setting inevitably sounds and feels fairly different than in a live setting. However I don’t think one is better than the other; they are just different experiences. For my solo record, as I mentioned earlier, I tried to get as much of a “live” feeling on the record as possible. I did several live performances leading up to the recording, and in the studio I did only complete takes and tried to go through all the compositions as if I were performing live. Nevertheless, it’s still a studio recording, and still has a lot of attention to sound and small details, which is what I wanted.

TC: Speaking of recording, what are your thoughts on the state of the recording industry at large, especially in regards to archival hard copies versus ephemeral downloads?

MH: It’s a changing industry, and a lot of those changes are making it very hard for musicians to survive; particularly in regards to most all music being available everywhere for free. Getting .001 cents for a download play on a digital streaming service doesn’t really count as income, and musicians all around are selling less records because of those services. Marc Ribot has been instrumental in trying to advocate for musician’s rights and help musicians get paid for their music ... I encourage people to read more about it at the Content Creator’s Coalition ( This is a big subject, obviously, and one that requires awareness on behalf of music fans and listeners.

As far as my own personal listening, I still prefer to buy physical copies (CD or vinyl). Whenever I buy music digitally I end up regretting it. I don’t steal music and I don’t subscribe to streaming services. It’s nice to have a physical package and be able to have actual information on hand (personnel, liner notes, etc.). I still press vinyl and CDs of my own music (but of course it’s available digitally too). Things are changing quickly and it’s still hard to say what the future holds, and how myself and other musicians will adapt to the new landscape.

TC: I am familiar with the Content Creator’s Coalition and would similarly encourage all fans of the arts to hear them out. We live in changing times, that’s for sure.

In regards to the future, what projects do you have planned next? I heard there is a recording session scheduled for your new octet. Can you reveal any details about that project?

MH: The octet recording is scheduled for December at Firehouse 12. In anticipation of the recording, we will be doing two nights of performances at the Jazz Gallery on December 15 and 16. The octet is made up of all the members of my existing septet (Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Jon Irabagon: alto saxophone; Ingrid Laubrock: tenor saxophone; Jacob Garchik: trombone; myself on guitar; John Hébert: bass; and Ches Smith: drums) with the addition of pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. I have been fascinated with pedal steel guitar for a while now, and with Susan’s playing in particular. Susan is a brilliant musician, a truly unique player and improviser. The range of melodies, sounds, textures and chords she gets from the pedal steel is mind blowing. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Susan, check out her new solo pedal steel record of Astor Piazzolla covers, Soledad on Relative Pitch. I had an opportunity to do a duo performance with Susan last year, and I’ve been looking for ways to do a more involved project with her ever since. I’ve been working on a new book of compositions for the octet all year, and look forward to premiering them in December. I really enjoy the sonic combination of guitar and pedal steel guitar, and it’s been a great challenge experimenting with various ways to integrate Susan’s sound into the mix.

TC: That does sound like an interesting pairing: standard guitar and pedal steel, especially with your use of delay as tremolo. On the surface, the extra guitar reminds me of Garchik’s new project Ye Olde, which features you as one of three guitarists, alongside Brandon Seabrook and Jonathan Goldberger. How did that ensemble come about?

MH: That was Jacob’s concept; he approached all of us with the idea a couple years back and we got together casually to read through a couple of his pieces. Before we knew it, he had written a whole book for the band and booked a recording session. As he describes the idea: “imagine a 2015 cover of the soundtrack to a 1970’s remake of a 1930’s movie about the middle ages.” To me, it sounds very nostalgic; the compositions sound like classics that you grew up with and somehow always knew. The three guitar thing is fantastic, unusual, and so much fun. A lot of the pieces are almost like prog rock classics, some are more chamber-esque ... Vinnie Sperrazza glues the whole thing together with incredible energy and Jacob has all sorts of effects on his trombone.

Jacob must like the sound of multiples on the same instrument; before Ye Olde he did a project called The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Choir. That is another must-check-out for anyone who hasn’t heard it. A nine part suite for trombone choir, with incredible harmonies throughout. On the record, Jacob overdubbed all the parts himself; live he performs it with a band of trombonists.

TC: You’re also part of Tomeka Reid’s new quartet, whose self-titled debut is due out soon on Thirsty Ear. The press release indicates Mike Reed made the initial connection (based on your role in Living By Lanterns). Can you talk a little about that project?

MH: Yes, I met Tomeka through Mike Reed, in his group Living by Lanterns. Living by Lanterns is made up of half Chicago musicians (Mike Reed, Jason Adasiewicz, Josh Abrams and Tomeka Reid) and half New York musicians (Ingrid Laubrock, Taylor Ho Bynum, Tomas Fujiwara, Greg Ward and myself). It’s been great to connect with musicians from the Chicago scene; there is so much incredible music happening there. When Tomeka’s project came up, I was really happy to get a chance to work more closely with her; I’ve always loved her playing, concept and compositions. Actually her quartet is also half Chicago musicians (herself and Jason Roebke) and half New York musicians (myself and Tomas Fujiwara). Tomas and I spent some time in Chicago last year, learning the music, doing the gigs and recording. I am looking forward to doing the first tour with this group when the record comes out.

© 2015 Troy Collins

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