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By John Fordham
A composer of unpredictable but warmly expressive character … Mary Halvorson.
A composer of unpredictable but warmly expressive character … Mary Halvorson. Photograph: Michael Wilson

The tenaciously inventive Massachusetts-born guitarist Mary Halvorson swapped classical violin for an electric guitar when she heard Jimi Hendrix at 11, and a biology degree for a life in music when she met avant-jazz composing, sax-improvising legend Anthony Braxton at a college jazz workshop. Halvorson has since forged a 20-year career embracing multiple DownBeat magazine best guitar awards, dozens of albums as a guest or leader, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and much else.

Halvorson’s current double release, Amaryllis and Belladonna, shows how far this singleminded original has come, and affords a glimpse of how far she may go. Amaryllis was mostly conceived for a six-piece improv band; Belladonna for New York’s contemporary-classical Mivos string quartet – but both sessions confirm how years of jaggedly lyrical solo and ensemble improvising and a quirkily subversive affection for mainstream music (a fondness shared with Braxton) have now nurtured a composer of unpredictable but warmly expressive character.

Amaryllis exposes avant-funk, fast bass-walking jazz, jubilant brass choruses and slow-sighing rumination to eloquent improvising from young vibraphone original Patricia Brennan, trumpet star Adam O’Farrill, the tersely punchy Jacob Garchik (trombone) and Nick Dunston (bass), mercurial drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and Halvorson herself.

Belladonna is quieter, but it still buzzes with contrasts: graceful sways of string harmony against Halvorson’s guitar-chord throb and chattery ascents (Nodding Yellow), slurred whale-song sounds over drifting background hums (Moonburn), squealing note-bends within almost Django Reinhardt-like runs (Flying Song), rollercoaster melody full of hard-accented turns and fast-strummed resolutions (Belladonna). These are new landmarks in Halvorson’s already inimitable discography.

Also out this month

American drummer, vibraphonist and composer Ches Smith adds guitar star Bill Frisell to his trio with violist Mat Maneri and pianist Craig Taborn on Interpret It Well (Pyroclastic Records) – a mix of subtle sound-painting, country-bluesy guitar, and some hard-rocking climaxes. Sons of Kemet saxophonist and composer Shabaka Hutchings’ Afrikan Culture (Impulse!) swaps Kemet’s ecstatic ensemble dances for a studio-layered solo reverie with African koras and mbiras, and Japan’s ethereally whispering shakuhachi flutes. It’s an outlet for a private and deeper spirituality in Shabaka (he goes by that name alone now), though there’s still plenty of visceral excitement in its whirling crescendos. And the quietly virtuosic UK vocalist Brigitte Beraha is at her delicately airborne, rhythmically audacious best with her closely entwined Lucid Dreamers band (including fine saxophonist George Crowley) and some sparing electronic support on the idiomatically wide-ranging Blink (Let Me Out Records).

• This article was amended on 15 May 2022. The trumpet player on Halvorson’s albums is Adam O’Farrill, not, as stated in an earlier version, Arturo O’Farrill, who is a Latin-jazz pianist and Adam’s father.

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Dive Deeper:
Jazz: South Africa's Shane Cooper and his band Mabuta make borders irrelevant
South African jazz seems to be having another international moment. Recently, for example, the Blue Note jazz label launched a…
The Smile: A Light for Attracting Attention review – Radiohead spinoff offers no alarms, some surprises
Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood team with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner for a debut that may not be…
From Everything Everywhere All At Once to Architectural Digest: a complete guide to this week’s entertainment
Whether you want to go far out or snoop at someone else’s home, our critics will keep you busy for…
The 'sounds of the underground' at Newcastle's historic Victoria Tunnel
As well as regular guided tours, Newcastle's Victoria Tunnel hosts a variety of events, including live musical performances in its…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
‘People took so many drugs, they forgot they played on it’ – stars on Exile on Main St, the Rolling Stones’ sprawling masterpiece
Recorded during several hedonistic months in a fabulous Cote d’Azur villa, Exile on Main St is seen as the Stones’…
‘Her playfulness is infectious’: meet the 12-year-old behind 2022’s most beguiling album
Known for his wide-ranging collaborations, LA jazz outsider Sam Gendel’s latest finds uninhibited common ground with his partner’s little sister,…
Get all your news in one place