Hidden Frames
Mary Halvorson. Photograph: Mary Willett.

Hidden Frames

Mary Halvorson's music expands the definition of free jazz rather than fitting neatly into the genre.

Mary Halvorson Trio

The Barge, Belfast
15 April 2011

The guitar player Joe Morris once said that there are eight distinctive approaches to the genre known as ‘free jazz’, ranging from the compositional innovations of Ornette Coleman and the primal aggression of Albert Ayler to the radical atonality of Cecil Taylor. It’s not easy classifying this music, and the fact that the New York guitarist Mary Halvorson doesn’t fit the stereotype of an African-American male saxophonist or indeed any one of Morris’ wider categorisations, makes her that much more difficult to define – perhaps the most impressive thing about her music is that it expands the genre rather than letting the genre define it. There are sure influences of the likes of Anthony Braxton and the same Joe Morris – she told me as much after the show, but Halvorson is very much her own thing.

Her music is pure propulsion, and delights in vigorous and jarring surprises. I’ve previously seen her bassist John Hebert play in the sensitive Fred Hersch Trio, but this was a world apart; Hebert was pulling his acoustic bass strings to the side of the fingerboard and hitting the strings and body with a drumstick. Drummer Ches Smith was equally brash, often surprising, and yet always offering a sense of balance to the group. Most enjoyable were the moments in which the trio emerged from apparent chaos in perfect synchronicity, apparently through the use of subtle melodic cues.

All three players coaxed an array of colours from their instruments rather than getting stuck in any singular method of instrumental approach – a hurdle for many improvisers, ‘free’ or otherwise. And yet, the trio’s willingness develop an idea meant that the virtuosity of what was being played never overshadowed the music. It was often not even apparent that a passage was improvised – is there a greater compliment to the improviser? Many aspire to this elusive goal of integrating the written and the spontaneous, and Halvorson’s music seems purpose-written to exploit this skill. Her patient yet energetic improvisations appeared so closely aligned to her un-fussy, playful compositions that the music retained a sense of order even in its wildest and most complex moments.

Published on 18 May 2011

Patrick Groenland is an Irish guitarist and composer. Having studied at the Berklee College of Music, Boston, he is now based in Dublin. www.patrickgroenland.com

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