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Mary Halvorson, "Songs that Get Stuck in My Head"

Just come back from an hour-long afternoon public workshop with guitarist Mary Halvorson at the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown, part of the last weekend of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. It was a real privilege to hear her talk and play. She was personable and articulate, taking questions and playing a handful of brief solo improvisations. 

She confessed that she was in the midst of “working on solo guitar music,” and that she hasn’t really performed solo up until this point in her career as an improviser. She said that she had decided to base her nascent solo work on “songs that get stuck in my head,” which at this point were principally jazz standards, although she was also looking to various “compositions by other people” as source material. She admitted that she tends to focus on melodies and has a harder time “remembering the chords.” But there was nothing diffident or self-effacing in her aesthetic or in her performing; her spotty memory seems to offer creative opportunity rather than impediment. Or, as she put it, “I’m going to make up my own chord changes to these existing melodies.” She offered a foreshortened but compelling version of “Beautiful Love,” laced with pitch-bent burbles, halting twangs and lyrical turn-on-a-dime redirections. She likes, as she said, “weird left turns and falling off cliffs” in music–her version of the “sound of surprise”– but her playing also drew out a gently fraught lyricism in each of her lines. If this really was a hint of what’s to come, her solo work is going to be beautifully unsettling and eclectically brilliant. She talked at some length about some of the challenges she feels she is facing combining her own idiosyncratic approach to the instrument with a more idiomatically “jazz” approach to playing and to musical form. (In fact, before she began talking, she played us a track from her iPod, Johnny Smith doing “Moonlight in Vermont,” and admitted her love of Smith’s sound. Smith had passed away a little over a week ago.) She also played a track from her yet-to-be-released septet album, roiling layers of horn and guitar.

When asked about connections between her styles of band leading and composition, she said she tries to enable and to support the members of her group, and is keen “not to be too controlling.” She pointed to her experiences with Taylor Ho Bynum‘s sextet–the example was suggested by someone in the audience–as a possible model for relinquishing control and instead creating democratic interactions among the players. At the same time, referring to her studies with Anthony Braxton (whose music she said helped her decide to drop her courses in biology and pursue music) and with Joe Morris, she said she felt that “the teachers you have really shape who you become,” noting that both of these mentors encouraged her to follow their example in seeking out her own idiom, her own ways of making music. A brief improvisation built from cascading pulses closed out the workshop.

Short Take on Nicole Mitchell, Solo

I spent the day yesterday off and on with Nicole Mitchell‘s remarkable new cd on my player. Engraved in the Wind, released on the French Rogueart label, is a set of compositions and improvisations for solo flute (with a track or two overdubbed, but most cuts using a single live instrument). Nicole Mitchell has worked in a number of musical contexts, from collaborative ensembles and AACM repertory groups to her own Black Earth Ensembles, but here she is in many ways at her most vulnerable — and also, her most moving. This album doesn’t merely showcase her virtuosity, which is thoroughly impressive; she is hands down and unquestionably one of the most accomplished and brilliant flautists in the world, working now in any idiom or sub genre, from classical to jazz and beyond. Mitchell’s huge instrumental technique, whether focused on fundamentals or developing an extended sonic palette, inevitably serves the musical demands of a given moment. The disc intermingles commissions from colleagues (and one piece from the emerging contemporary repertoire for solo flute, Alvin Singleton‘s “Agoru III”) with a series of improvisational explorations of various elements in Mitchell’s instrumental language, a concept akin to Anthony Braxton‘s For Alto, although Mitchell’s rhythmic and harmonic senses are entirely her own; her playing sounds little to nothing like Braxton’s, and she prefers (to my ears, at least) a more folk-based and lyrical melodic tactic. There is a debt here, perhaps, to James Newton‘s Axum, and Newton is one of the composers to offer an original composition, in this instance “Six Wings,” for Mitchell’s recital. But while she often acknowledges her indebtedness to traditions of Afrological music-making — “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future” — her voice, at this point in her career, has become fully her own. (Joe Morris provides excellent liner notes that speak to her technique and to her musical approaches much more eloquently than I can here.)  On the album, she explores a wide range of textures and timbres, but my favourite cut so far is “Dadwee,” a folksy (even blues-ish) line co-composed with Aaya Samaa that demonstrates the almost buttery richness and harmonic density of her flute tone. Her music nourishes as it unfolds. The recording, done at UC Irvine, is intimate and full, very present, which helps, of course. But what most impresses me, as I listen, is the warmth and closeness of her music. Nicole Mitchell has created a definitive album of solo flute music, one to which I am sure I will return again and again.