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On Top of the World: Mary Halvorson at the Magic Triangle Jazz Series

Mary Halvorson has the world on a string. Six strings, actually. The 37-year old Brookline, Massachusetts native has spent the last dozen years creating a unique compositional and playing style that has catapulted her into the upper echelon of the jazz world. The guitarist led her ensemble, Reverse Blue, in a meaty, provocative evening of music at Smith College’s Sweeney Concert Hall on Monday, March 27, as the Magic Triangle Jazz Series continued its 28th season.


The band, Chris Speed, tenor saxophone and clarinet, Eivind Opsvik, bass, Tomas Fujiwara, drums, and Halvorson, performed 70 minutes of original music for about 300 people. Drawn from their 2014 Relative Pitch release, Reverse Blue, the concert featured the knotty, off-kilter approach that has distinguished Halvorson’s sound.


Although there is plenty of precision in the music, there is a constant feeling that the wheels are about to leave the rails. Of course, in the hands of these accomplished artists they never do, but that uncertainty fuels the excitement of listening. The music sounds at once familiar and disorienting, rhythmically assured and harmonically ambiguous.


At times Halvorson and Speed played tricky unison lines; at other points they played intricate contrapuntal passages. Just like beach tension, where waves move one way and the undertow pulls in the opposite direction, the ebb and flow created shifting landscapes. On more than one occasion, Opsvik would change his rhythmic allegiance from Fujiwara to the “front line” players, creating a two-at-once feeling. Wherever the bassist locked in, he was spot on.


The venerable Sweeney Concert Hall was designed for choirs and chamber orchestras, not drum kits. After some readjustment from the sound technician, we could better hear the guitar and reeds. But being able to readily hear Fujiwara was its own reward. His playing was precise and articulate. He swung the band, providing just the right accents and colors. A word to the wise: Fujiwara’s quintet, The Hook Up, (featuring Halvorson), will conclude the Magic Triangle Jazz Series with an April 27 concert in Bezanson Recital Hall at UMASS.


In the recent past, Halvorson has been the subject of cover stories in Downbeat and Jazz Times, and major articles in the New York Times and NPR. Right after her Northampton gig, she was off to Europe to perform John Zorn’s Bagatelles. She has a week-long engagement at the hallowed Village Vanguard with her octet in July. Next January she has a month-long residency at The Stone. Despite all the acclaim and opportunity that has come her way, Halvorson is humble and unpretentious.


After spending some time with Halvorson’s parents, it’s clear why her head is not too big and on straight. Craig and Karen still live in Brookline and made the trip west (along with Tomas’ mother, Chantal). I first got to know them when they all came to Greenfield to hear Thumbscrew, the cooperative trio Mary and Tomas co-lead with bassist Michael Formanek. They are educated, down to earth and generous (Mr. Halvorson treated us all to drinks at the Hotel Northampton after the performance.)


“When you see Mary Halvorson on stage, she doesn’t look like much of a trailblazer,” begins a November NPR feature. “She plays sitting down. She’s small, and mostly hidden behind her hollow-body guitar and glasses. But then she starts to play. And the sounds coming out of her amp are anything but conventional.”


Thanks to Smith College Professor Steve Waksman this Magic Triangle concert was offered free to the public. That explained the larger crowd and allowed the curious and uninitiated to check out the music at no cost. In these days of corporate-fueled groupthink, our political and aesthetic imagination has shrunk. Just as our national debate is truncated, the music we are exposed to is exceedingly narrow. So it was important, especially for those folks who left early with furrowed brows and puzzled countenance, to understand there are many ways to organize sound.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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