• Why Mary Halvorson Sounds Like No Other Guitarist

    November 27, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

    Mary Halvorson's latest album, Away With You, is a collection of octets. (Image Credit: Peter Gannushkin/Courtesy of the artist)

    When you see Mary Halvorson on stage, she doesn't look like much of a trailblazer. 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.

    "I do like things that are unexpected," Halvorson says. "I often don't like music that's predictable, so you know what's coming next. I like to throw in things that maybe are a little less predictable."

    Over the past decade, the 36-year-old guitarist and composer has found increasing attention and acclaim, leading her own groups in the man's world of jazz and wielding her instrument so distinctively, one music journalist described her approach as "anti-guitar." She insists that is not intentional.

    "I'm not really thinking about being weird, if that makes sense?" she says. "I'm just trying to play some music I like. And it often comes out weird."

    Halvorson discovered the electric guitar when she was 11, growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts. But she went to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut planning to be a biologist. Then she walked into a music class taught by Anthony Braxton, the MacArthur "genius" grant-winning composer and saxophonist.

    "And I was just so bowled over by him and his music that I ended up dropping all the science classes within the first semester," she says. "Within my first year, I thought, 'I can't not do this.'"

    Halvorson says Braxton encouraged her to find her own voice on the guitar. "He's so excited about everything, and encouraging people to explore," she says. "It made you feel like there were unlimited possibilities." (She still performs in Braxton's band.)

    After graduation, Halvorson moved to New York. At first, she worked in an office by day and played at night, but music has been her full-time job for nearly 10 years. And she works a lot, both as a leader and in bands led by other people — including the Young Philadelphians, with veteran guitarist Marc Ribot.

    "Mary kicks ass, you know? Let there be no doubt about it," Ribot says. "She can play atonally. She can play poly-tonally. She can find the melodies that are inherent in the piece, and develop them, and work with them, and play them upside down and backwards and inside out."

    Halvorson's latest album is a collection of octets called Away With You, with featured collaborators including pedal steel player Susan Alcorn, cellist Tomeka Reid and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. Halvorson says she sees more and more women on the bandstand all the time.

    "Which is amazing," she says. "I mean, it's not uncommon now for me to play in bands where women outnumber men. I think there's a real momentum, and things are starting to shift."

    But it's still not all that common to see a young woman leading a jazz band. Halvorson says her philosophy as a leader is to give musicians the freedom to make their own choice, in much the same way that she found her own voice on the guitar.

    "For me it's more a matter of just trusting my instincts, even if you have a really simple idea — just, 'OK, I like this, I'm gonna play' — and not worrying too much about what it is, what it sounds like, or doesn't sound like," she says. So I try as much as I can to play what I like, and trust what I like."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • For Thanksgiving, A Chain Of Musical Gratitude

    November 24, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

    Clockwise from left: Corey King, Esperanza Spalding, Laura Mvula, Michaela Anne. (Image Credit: Courtesy of the artists)

    For the second year in a row, the annual All Things Considered Thanksgiving music chat is a multi-part conversation. Host Ari Shapiro welcomes four musicians, each of whom was named by one of his or her fellow guests as an artist to be thankful for.

    The chain begins with Shapiro's pick: British soul singer-songwriter Laura Mvula. Hear all four interviews at the audio link on this page, and read excerpts below.

    Laura Mvula

    On the song "Phenomenal Woman": "I was listening to a YouTube clip of Maya Angelou reciting her poem 'Phenomenal Woman,' and even though I had heard the poem many times before, this was the first time that ... I breathed the words in and took them very much to heart and mind. And then this was my response. It's an anthem for women, and I feel like I get to celebrate my grandmother. I get to celebrate my mom, my sister and my own womanhood in that song."

    On performing "Cinnamon Tree" with Esperanza Spalding: "I had the pleasure of dueting this song in concert with her in London one time. ... This is off of her record which was a couple of years old, and so I think she said to me, 'Girl, I've forgotten how to play this tune.' ... And then she picked up the bass and just played it like she played it yesterday. I was like, 'Whatever.'"

    Esperanza Spalding

    On the song "Cinnamon Tree": "I wrote that song for a friend of mine ... We used to hang out a lot, but we would see each other really rarely. And we started to develop these kind of shorthand check-ins, since we had so little time with each other. And one of them became 'Cinnamon Tree.' It was just a phrase to mean, 'I miss you' or 'There you are' or 'I'm happy to see you.' ... We had never described what that term actually meant, so I decided I was going to write a song to describe what we were actually saying. So it's actually a song about gratitude and friendship."

    On Corey King: "I first met Corey King when he was known as a trombonist and a part-time arranger, and at that time, Corey was a very, very shy person, but I always felt this twinkle in his eye. He seemed like somebody who's figured out a secret that you're still working on, but he's generous enough that he's not going to reveal it, you know? And I just felt this magnetism to his intellect and his creativity ... His music doesn't sound like anything that I am familiar with."

    Corey King

    On the song "Midnight Chris": "That song is about my brother, and him kind of struggling with drug abuse in the past. And the ambient sounds of that was my way of soundtracking his experience with those things. ... We grew up on the southeast side of Houston actually, and we weren't really an athletic family — we were more artistic. ... So I think he was just kind of dealing with being himself in the South. And he just kind of succumbed to drugs back in the day and went through a lot."

    On Michaela Anne: "Coming from high school and going to college and everything, I was just really, really inside of myself. And Michaela was one of the people who was so loving and generous, and we really became good friends during that time. And we didn't really make much music in college, but when she started making records and when I started hearing her sing, I was really blown away by her poetry and just her presence."

    Michaela Anne

    On her chosen style of music: "I sang jazz in school, and I love that art form so much, but it never felt true for me delivering it. So I think in my writing, as well as my actual singing voice, that it just lent itself to — although it's a blurry genre these days — to country, Americana, whatever you want to call it."

    On the artist she's thankful for: "I don't sing soul music in the way that we think of soul music as the genre, but Otis Redding's singing and music has been, from a young age, a really strong influence and inspiration to me ... I think he has one of the greatest voices we've ever had the pleasure of hearing on this earth, and it conveys so much emotion and love and pain and joy. And as a singer and a songwriter, my goal in life is to be able to convey even a fraction of what I think he does and what I feel when I listen to him."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • Grab A Seat In The Studio With The Miles Davis Quintet

    November 23, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

    Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 provides listeners rare access to the Miles Davis Quintet's creative process. (Image Credit: Veryl Oakland/Courtesy of the artist)

    Music historians, biographers and diehard fans have always had a keen interest in session reels, the unedited studio banter and outtakes from recording sessions. With the release of Freedom Jazz Dance, the fifth volume of Miles Davis' The Bootleg Series, avid listeners will have access to over two hours of previously unreleased recordings — including dialogue from studio sessions.

    When I first got my hands on the Miles Davis Quintet's session reels, I felt like I'd walked right into their studio and taken a seat in the sound booth. These reels are access to the insular world of Davis and his sidemen: how they joked, collaborated and worked.

    There are even scenes of discovery. One track gives a glimpse of the quintet rehearsing Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" in 1967. Davis, laughing, offers an idea: "Hey man, why don't we make a tune just playin' the melody, not play the solos." He's met by laughter from the whole room. At the time, this band always improvised solos; solos developed a melody and gave it drama. But instead, there's a collective realization here that the horns should simply repeat the melody. That repetition created dramatic tension, and meanwhile the spectacular drumming developed the tune. Freedom Jazz Dance gives us this decisive moment of creation — and so much else.

    In another recording, Davis and pianist Herbie Hancock are working on the tune "Circle." Miles grumbles a little at the recording engineer, but mostly what I hear is camaraderie and diligence. This is Davis as a productive professional rather than the tortured genius we've seen on film lately. Whatever demons may have haunted him, this album reminds us that he was also an engaging bandleader who worked hard at his music.

    Freedom Jazz Dance isn't for everyone. With its false starts, sometimes barely intelligible dialogue, and sheer length — three full CDs of material! — some might see the album as merely of academic or historical interest.

    What this album does offer is the unfiltered creative process of one of jazz's greatest bands, a sense of how the musicians understood and evolved their art. Freedom Jazz Dance's session reels are nonfiction scenes from an important era in Miles Davis's musical life — and if we listen closely, the album gives us just enough information to compose the rest of the story ourselves.

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  • Mayra Casales's Salon Session with Sheila Anderson

    November 22, 2016. Posted by Corey Goldberg.

    Percussionist Mayra Casales stops by to talk with Sheila Anderson about her album, Woman on Fire.


  • Little Johnny Rivero with Awilda Rivera

    November 22, 2016. Posted by Corey Goldberg.

    Percussionist Little Johnny Rivero joins Awilda Rivera for a conversation that traces his path from a childhood on the dance floor to fronting his own band.