Mary Halvorson – Meltframe (2015)

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At some point many o’ jazz musician will make a solo, unaccompanied record, offering listeners a chance to peer into the soul of the artist by him or her standing naked, figuratively speaking, in front of the audience. When that artist has developed a vocabulary all his or her own, that record can be incredibly fascinating, as it is when, for instance, Matthew Shipp does it.

In this case, guitarist Mary Halvorson has made such a record, Meltframe (September 4, 2015 by Firehouse 12 Records), and from the start there’s no question that she’s unique enough to justify doing this; even her guitars of choice (Guild, Epiphone) stand apart from her peers. She sets up comparisons to the ‘gold standard’ of solo jazz guitar records, Joe Pass’ Virtuoso, only to demonstrate how such comparisons are silly because although she shares some guitar fundamentals with Pass (as nearly all jazz guitarists do, really), Halvorson is in a lot of ways the anti-Joe Pass and Meltframe the anti-Virtuoso.

Sure, she chooses all covers, too, but the very choices she makes – all jazz tunes, by the way — says a great deal about herself more so than the composers she pays homage to. Halvorson seems to be making a point about the complexity of her own craft, which doesn’t rely so much by abstracting these harmonies until they’re unrecognizable as you might expect anyone on the avant garde corner of jazz to do, but often by the jarring use of metal distortion and effects pedals juxtaposed alongside moments of soft, pure tone.

Take McCoy Tyner’s “Aisha,” for example. Halvorson plays notes with a fragile innocence, until without warning, her guitar morphs into a heavily distorted fuzz tone, followed a short time later by that signature nosedive. All the time, she makes no great attempt to mask the underlying melody. “Cascades,” an Oliver Nelson composition is played out entirely in fuzz, as is much of the Chris Lightcap-penned “Platform,” which contains a brief moment of dramatic effects, until it reaches a clear-toned ending, which by this time is dramatic in itself. On the other side of intensity, she exploits the pulsating glow of the tremolo in an economically sensitive reading of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.”

Don’t get me wrong, technique plays a central role in casting these songs in refreshingly new ways, too. Annette Peacock’s “Blood” hints at flamenco with its nimble note runs that sandwich an affecting rendering of the melody. Even her use of slide is unlike any others: using it on seemingly just one string on Ornette Coleman’s “Sadness” (a particularly poignant choice since she recorded this), and rattling that string to create a buzzing, percussive timbre while exploring micro tonalities.

Other times, interpretative approach takes priority over everything else: turning “Ida Lupino” into a folk-rock tune, Halvorson suggests the songwriting genius of Carla Bley, whose unusual composing style is open and flexible enough to be plugged into nearly any setting.

Combining the graceful with the caustic, Meltframe perfectly captures human imperfections and multiplicity, and further confirms that Mary Halvorson has one of the truly singular voices on guitar. Not of just jazz guitar today, but of any style of guitar for all times. We might be spending a few generations trying to unravel what mysteries she left on this set of recordings. And that’s just fine, because trying to make sense of the surprises that lurk around every corner is much of the fun in listening to this record.

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