March Artist Feature: Mary Halvorson

(photo by Kelly Hansen)

(photo by Kelly Jensen)

Guitarist Mary Halvorson has two exciting new records coming out this year. The first, with bassist Stephan Crump, is the sophomore effort of their collaborative duo, Secret Keeper. The music they create together features rich, sensual, earthy sounds set upon a palate of sound that includes dashes of necessary tension amidst foreboding resonance. A truly magical pairing of virtuosos both equipped with daring vision. Titled Emerge (Intakt), their second record will be available in Europe this month and in the United States April 28. Emerge is a decisive new turn for the band following their fully improvised debut Super Eight. The new release features nine tunes–four compositions by each of the two band members–and an adapted song by Irving Berlin. Halvorson is also set to release her first solo record on Firehouse 12 in September.


Cisco Bradley: Since releasing Super Eight in 2013, how has your duo Secret Keeper with bassist Stephan Crump evolved? What are the ideas that came to form the basis for your second record?

Mary Halvorson: Our first record, Super Eight, is an unusual record in that it contains the very first notes Stephan and I ever played together. Back in the summer of 2012 we met and decided to play some duets, and since Stephan has a recording studio in his apartment, he set up mic’s just for the hell of it. The resultant improvisations we recorded, including those very first notes, are included on Super Eight. Because we enjoyed those initial improvisations so much, we decided to bring compositions to the band, and make it a regular project. We didn’t record the compositions right away; for a couple years we workshopped them, rehearsed, performed them live. Normally we mix the free improvisations with our compositions during live performance. Eventually we got around to recording an album comprising all the written material– 4 tunes by each of us, plus one by Irving Berlin. So, Emerge is a pretty drastically different record than Super Eightin approach and concept, it’s way more compositional and structured. Still, improvisation is common thread that runs through both, and it feels pretty natural for Stephan and I to switch between these two approaches.

CB: What about Stephan’s music first made you want to collaborate with him?

MH: ​I was drawn to Stephan’s music for many reasons; first, he is a complete master of the instrument; fluid and virtuosic in his approach. On top of that, whatever he plays is shaped by an amazingly strong attention to detail. Every attack, note and sound he creates is important and purposeful; he is never on auto-pilot. ​He’s a great listener and an extraordinarily open musician, a searching musician, with wide-reaching musical tastes and interests.

CB: What about the energy and feel of Thelonious Monk’s music did you find mos​t​ inspiring?

MH: ​I think the Monk song title Ugly Beauty sums it up well.

CB: What led you to include an Irving Berlin piece on Emerge?

MH: That was Stephan’s idea. His reason for choosing it, I’m actually not sure. But it’s an incredible composition. He wanted to try it as a duo, so we did, and we loved playing it. Then, while we were recording one afternoon in Stephan’s home studio, there was a kind of magical moment where this insane rainstorm started happening outside, just as we were playing What’ll I do. We decided to open the windows to let the sound of the rain in. So you can actually hear the rain on the album, during that piece only.

CB: You are also releasing your debut solo record on Firehouse 12 in September. How is your approach to the solo project different from the other music you have crafted over the years?

MH: My approach to solo music is pretty drastically different than anything else I’ve done. Since I started to play music when I was seven years old, interacting with other musicians has been a huge part of it. When I started working on the solo project a few years ago, it was my first attempt at creating music entirely on my own, so it required a pretty intense change of mindset.​

​I wanted to​ create something full enough to stand on it’s own, with enough variety and structure to be interesting, and with enough space to breathe. For me breathing was the hardest part; when I started playing solo I felt like a nervous talker, anxiously trying to fill the space left by the absence of other musicians. It took me some time to learn how to relax.

Another reason this project is pretty different for me is that it’s all covers. When I initially thought about doing a solo guitar project, I felt pretty strongly I didn’t want to do an all improvised record, but at the same time I felt zero inspiration to compose music for solo guitar. Then one day the idea popped into my head to do covers. I thought about doing solo guitar renditions of jazz standards that are important to me, songs I grew up listening to on repeat, songs that get stuck in my head.​ I spent a couple years working on choosing material and developing new approaches and strategies. The album ranges from classic tunes (Cascades by Oliver Nelson and Ida Lupino by Carla Bley) to compositions by my friends and peers (Platform by Chris Lightcap and When by Tomas Fujiwara). Thelonious Monk’s solo piano music was a big influence on this project, and although no Monk tunes made it onto the record in the end, I did spend quite a bit of time working on his music and absorbing the energy and feel of it.

CB: Can you tell us a bit more about how you selected the tunes to record for your solo project?

MH: Gradually, and kind of haphazardly. I would put on a record at home or on my headphones while traveling… a song would come up, and I’d think: maybe this would work. Then I’d start workshopping it and experimenting with ways to adapt it for solo guitar. After a couple years of doing this I’d built a repertoire. For example, one day I was listening to Ornette Coleman’s Sadness, from Town Hall 1962. This is probably my all time favorite Ornette song. I love the bowed bass in the beginning, contrasted with the saxophone melody; the intense emotion it creates. For that piece I worked with a slide in order to emulate the bowed bass and slippery aspects of the melody.​​ Then I added a “part two” arpeggiated section which doesn’t have much to do with the original, except that the original brought me there.​

CB: I have always been impressed by how fast you make decisions in real time as an improviser. What is going through your head when you are in the midst of it?

MH: ​I like music to be as intuitive as possible, therefore I try to clear my head when I’m playing and think as little as I can, at least in terms of rational thoughts. But of course it’s impossible to not think at all; so when I am thinking probably the #1 thing I’m thinking about is balance.

CB: You have often mentioned that you are an interest in astrology. How have you incorporated this interest into your music?

MH: I’ve been interested in astrology since I was in college, when I realized I could pick out an Aries in a room and was almost always right. Over the years I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning astrological systems. ​My good friend, violist Jessica Pavone, is a serious astrologer and we keep a database of hundreds of​ our​ friends’ charts.​ Actually I have several friends who are interested in the subject. ​For me, it’s more of a hobby and I tend to keep it separate from music; i.e. I don’t use astrological concepts in musical compositions. I do notice patterns, however. For example in college I had a quartet where the members were one of each element: earth, air, fire and water. In my septet, 5 out of the 7 members are Librans (I didn’t do that on purpose; I noticed after the fact).​

Secret Keeper Spring Tour Dates

  • 3/31: Amherst College – Amherst, MA
  • 4/1: Wesleyan University – Middletown, CT
  • 4/2: Bop  Shop – Rochester, NY
  • 4/3 – 80 Gladstone – Toronto, ON
  • 4/4: Constellation – Chicago, IL
  • 4/6: Purdue University North Central – Westville, IN
  • 4/6: Purdue University – Hammond, IN
  • 4/7: City of Asylum – Pittsburgh, PA
  • 4/17: Cornelia Street Cafe – New York, NY
  • 6/11: Pausa Art House – Buffalo, NY
  • 6/12: Kerrytown Concert House – Ann Arbor, MI
  • 6/13: The Music Settlement – Cleveland, OH
  • 6/14: Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza – Columbus, OH

Playlist for the Week of March 16, 2015

  • Jon Lundbom and Big Five Chord – Jeremiah (Hot Cup, 2014)
  • William Parker – At Somewhere There (Barnyard, 2010)
  • Michel Doneda – Everybody Digs Michel Doneda (Relative Pitch, 2014)
  • Jake Henry’s Sweet Talk – Glitterbomb (Prom Night)
  • Hypercolor – self-titled (Tzadik, 2014)
  • Thomas Borgmann, Peter Brotzmann, Borah Bergman – Blue Zoo (Konnex, 1997)
  • Michael Foster Solo – Flesh Marked Like That (self-released)
  • Mike Pride SoloListening Party (Akord, 2014)
  • Graham Stephenson, Aaron Zarzutzki – Touching (Erstwhile, 2013)
  • Mikko Innanen (with William Parker, Andrew Cyrille) – Song for a New Decade (TUM, 2014)
  • Milford Graves, Bill Laswell – Space/Time . Redemption (TUM, 2014)
  • James Falzone’s Renga Ensemble – The Room Is (Allos Documents, 2015)

Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up to Release 3rd Album in April (Sneak Peek #2)

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This is the second part of a multi-part interview with drummer and composer Tomas Fujiwara. His quintet, Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up will release their third studio album in April.


Cisco Bradley: Your brushwork is stunning in many contexts, but has really stood out with your band Thumbscrew (with Mary Halvorson and Michael Formanek). Could you talk about how you developed your technique and what you feel it contributes to the aesthetic of your music and compositions?

Tomas Fujiwara: Spending a lot of time with the brushes first came about by necessity. When I was 18, 19, 20, I did A LOT of restaurant, bar, and lounge gigs. We’d play 3, 4, 5 sets a night, for a bunch of people paying no attention to what we were doing. (As a side note, I remember a night when we were trying to learn a band member’s original composition. One set was the same song 5 or 6 times in a row, just so we could work on it and get comfortable with it. No one seemed to notice. I think it was 2 for 1 oysters happy hour, so you can’t really blame them…) Most of the owners and managers wanted three things, and three things only: Start and end on time. Dress “appropriately.” And be as quiet as possible. If they saw you even hold a pair of drumsticks, they’d freak. A lot of places had a “brushes only” policy for the drummer. So I was stuck with those things in my hands night after night for hours and hours. I had always watched Alan Dawson play amazing things with the brushes at gigs of his I would attend as a kid, so I started with that as inspiration. Alan had passed at this point, so I never got a chance to ask him a lot of brush questions, but the things he played were ingrained in my ear. There’s an incredible YouTube clip of him explaining the brushes to a student. Amazing.

From there I checked out Papa Jo Jones (Alan’s first inspiration) and the range of things he could play with the brushes. I would watch videos (this was pre-YouTube) of anyone playing brushes, because seeing the particular strokes and patterns a drummer is using is very important. Papa Jo, Vernell Fournier, Ed Thigpen, Elvin Jones…wow. I took a couple of lessons with Chico Hamilton, just about brush technique, that were eye opening. And I would take all of this stuff and practice it on my restaurant gigs. I would work on the various patterns on the snare drum, like painting shapes on the drum head with the brushes, as well as articulating stickings that I would normally play with the  drumsticks. I had been playing Alan’s Rundimental Ritual for years, and I started playing it with brushes.

When I play the brushes now–a choice rather than an occupational demand!–I think about the sound and texture and mood. There are legato and sustained sounds that are very specific to the brushes, and they can add a lot to a piece. When I think about cellos and violins, I think of the brushes. They can also feel very evocative, like mimicking sounds found in nature, or produced by machines–gears and levers. It’s more challenging to articulate stickings with the brushes–less rebound–but when played clearly, a lot of phrases sound great with the brushes on the drums and cymbals and create a totally different atmosphere than playing the same thing with sticks. I like to use them to play melodies as you can often “double” the melody without getting in the way of the other instruments playing it. Alan did this a lot. He had a specific exercise involving the Sonny Rollins composition “Oleo” and you could always hear the melody so clearly the way he played it with the brushes.

Cisco Bradley: What connection is there, if any, between visual images and the music you produce? Are there particular colors, shapes, or objects you have felt especially compelled to represent in your music?

Tomas Fujiwara: There’s a huge connection for me. I’m always composing as if I’m writing a soundtrack. There’s almost always a picture or scene in my head when I start, and I go from there. Like the first notational sketches for a composition, I often abandon or even forget the first images, but they’ve served their purpose of getting me going. Once I’ve started, I might reference any number of visual ideas swirling in my head as I write. Sometimes they follow a story or a common theme or a through-line, but usually it’s more of a collage of images and moments. A lot of them will be mini movies in my head–a scene or two. Or there will be a painting, sculpture, photograph, really anything visual that creates a spark. I’ve checked out a lot of Egon Schiele’s work over the years, and last summer I spent some time at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, which has the largest permanent collection of his work. I’m not usually drawn to such dark visual art, but I couldn’t stop looking at his pieces. Chris Ofili’s recent exhibition at The New Museum–in some ways at the other end of the spectrum in terms of being very colorful and vivacious–really stayed with me. And dance. The rhythm of body movement has so much in it to inspire music. The Batsheva Dance Company’s Sadeh21 absolutely floored me. The rhythm and phrasing in their movements, the freedom with precision, and the patience to develop a piece..unbelievable. I’m still absorbing that performance.

New This Week / March 17, 2015




Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up to Release 3rd Record in April (Sneak Peek #1)

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This is the first of a multi-part preview of Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up’s new release, After All Is Said, set to be out on 482 Music, April 21. This record comes on the heels of the band’s two highly-regarded earlier albums, Actionspeak (2010) and The Air Is Different (2012). Headed by consummate drummer and composer Fujiwara, the new record will feature three of the quintet’s original members–Jonathan Finlayson (trumpet), Brian Settles (tenor saxophone, flute), and Mary Halvorson (guitar). The new addition since 2012 is veteran bassist Michael Formanek, contributing his signature robust sound.

I asked Mr. Fujiwara to share some of the thoughts and ideas that went into the making of the new album.

Cisco Bradley: What ideas inspired the new album of music that you are releasing with the Hook Up?

Tomas Fujiwara: At this point, I’m constantly writing music and working out ideas for this ensemble. I have the musicians’ voices in my head–their approach to sound and improvisation, phrasing and interpretation of written material, color and mood–and I write with that in mind. I write to focus on the specifics of each musician and their approach, and I write to push them out of comfort zones. And I always write to try and create an environment for some new combinations within the ensemble, not just of players, but of textures and sonic relationships. There has to be a certain element of risk and there has to be space for spontaneity and musical “problem solving” in real time. The challenge is to choreograph, but with a lot of space to let things take shape in their own way with each performance. Like everything in life, it’s all about balance.

It’s usually hard to pinpoint exact inspiration for a piece of music. In the case of “The Comb,” the inspiration is clear. It was a story, told to me by my stepfather, about my step grandfather, who I never met, that really resonated with me. I started writing that composition immediately after hearing the story. I always write with the idea of a soundtrack–music to accompany a narrative, a scene, an image, etc. That is probably Wayne Shorter’s biggest influence on me. When I read about him writing music to accompany visual images (movies, comic books, etc.) it really hit home, because all of his music has so much richness that goes much deeper than notes and sound. Evocative–and in a very open ended way, so you create your own image rather than having the composer tell you what you’re supposed to see. “The Comb” is a rare exception because it’s a specific story that I am both composing for and telling the audience–my step father, Pirooz Vakili, wrote the story for the album liner notes. For the most part, I try not to tell people too much about the inspiration for a piece, because I want them to create their own narrative, image, interpretation. I love to hear from them what it is. A lot of times people will ask me what a piece is about, and I’ll say, “you tell me what it was about.” I’m always fascinated by the answer, and sometimes it even inspires me to write more and to look at the composition in new ways. I want the listener to experience the music in their own way and to create their own narrative. In today’s world, a lot of people don’t have the patience or focus to do that, and I think that’s a shame. They want to know, “this piece is about person R who did action V which is significant in ways Q, D, and B, and culturally relevant to P, Z, and L and follows a continuum of Y, and therefore you should pay attention and look for these things because if not, you’re not hip or smart or in the know.” That can be quick and easy and you can “process” a lot rather efficiently and appear to speak on it. But, if people are interested, I’d like them to just take some time and listen to the music and come up with whatever they draw from it, as unaffected by pre-judgement as possible. I have an actor friend who used to go to plays and not read a word of the program while sitting in his seat waiting for the performance to start. That was a powerful lesson for me. He didn’t want to know the name of the actors, what they had done, where they had studied, etc. He just wanted to experience it. After the show, he might look at that information to learn more about the production, the people involved, etc., but he started with the piece. I guess, that’s my ideal. To “open” with the piece and let the other things (discussion, analysis, opinions, etc.) follow. Admittedly, a little bit idealistic, but we can all have an ideal we strive for!

CB: This is now your third record with this band. How has the band evolved since The Air Is Different?

TF: Since The Air is Different was recorded, the great bassist, composer, and improviser Michael Formanek has joined the group. As with all of the members of the ensemble, he has a strong and personal musical approach that affects how the music sounds and where it goes. Brian Settles has started playing flute on some of the compositions (“Lastly” on the upcoming After All Is Said, and, in live performances, “Folly Cove” from our first album, Actionspeak). The dynamics within the group have grown and deepened over time, through this ensemble, and, more and more, in other ensembles (Michael’s big band and smaller groups, Mary’s quintet and septet, etc.). As I compose for the band, the roles I have defined, in my mind, for each member within a composition become much more fluid, with more and more possibilities at my disposal as a writer and bandleader. I try to think of every possible combination, and utilize as many of them as I can over the course of a book of music, set list, etc. I’m also using a wider variety of methods to “write out” and explain my pieces to the band, sometimes purposefully leaving out information to see what can happen with minimal instruction, other times being very specific about a certain section and what needs to happen. As the group has played together and developed over time, I’ve had more opportunities to work in different strategies and methods. Each composition on After All Is Said had a unique starting point, a way of developing and realizing that first idea, and an approach to presenting it to the ensemble to play and make their own. And yet, I feel like the album has a continuity and unity of sound throughout that is very important to me in making an album and having a band that sounds like a band and not a collection of musicians.

Playlist for the Week of March 2, 2015

  • Eris 136199: Han-earl Park, Catherine Sikora, Nick Didkovsky, Josh SintonAnomic Aphasia (SLAM, 2015)
  • John Coltrane Quintet with Eric Dolphy – The Unissued German Concerts (RLR, 2010)
  • Eric Dolphy Quintet featuring Herbie Hancock – Complete Recordings (Lone Hill, 2004)
  • Eric Dolphy – The Illinois Concert (Capitol, 1999)
  • Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy – Cornell 1964 (Blue Note, 2007)