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Catch an early bloom of 'Amaryllis,' one of two new albums by Mary Halvorson

Brian Cohen

Two years ago, when the coronavirus pandemic first brought the world to a standstill, Mary Halvorson joined countless others in turning inward. Not to imply that introspection is any sort of departure for Halvorson — the restlessly inventive guitarist, composer and songwriter, named a MacArthur Fellow in 2019. But in the forced quiet of lockdown, she decided to explore what you might call a new language: composing for string quartet.

“Really the only writing I ever did for strings before that was the duo I had with Jessica Pavone, the violist,” Halvorson told me last fall. “I took lessons with her during the pandemic, to learn how to better write for strings. And I read some orchestration books; it became a big project. I played violin as a child, so I think part of it was connecting back to that. But I was sitting in my room trying to imagine the bowing, even though I can’t play violin anymore. I always loved the challenge of doing something totally new.”

Halvorson was speaking on a panel discussion at the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, last October. One month prior, she had recorded a pair of albums, her first for Nonesuch Records: Belladonna, which places her guitar alongside the Mivos Quartet; and Amaryllis, which incorporates Mivos on a few tracks but mainly features a sextet of leading improvisers on the scene. Both albums were produced by John Dieterich of Deerhoof, and will be available on May 13.

This morning, Nonesuch released "Night Shift," the first single from Amaryllis. It's a strong showcase for Halvorson's new sextet, with Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Patricia Brennan on vibraphone, Nick Dunston on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Here is a video for the track, animated by Robert Edridge-Waks and featuring paintings by Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist DM Stith.

Mary Halvorson - Night Shift (Official Video)

With its stop-start melodic line over a groove in 10/8 meter, "Night Shift" recalls not only Halvorson's other midsize ensemble writing but also the molten sheen of the Steve Lehman Octet. (The comparison surely owes something to instrumentation: that blended churn of trumpet, trombone and vibraphone, against a bass-and-drums core.) On other portions of the album, Halvorson merges the sextet with the string quartet, working with her largest compositional palette thus far.

Amaryllis features some of my favorite musicians on the planet," she reflects in press materials. "I started writing the music in 2020, when the world slowed and most activities came to a halt, and all I had was my guitar, a pencil, some staff paper, and a computer. The pleasure of imagining what the music might sound like kept me sane during that time and gave me reason to push forward.”

Preorder Amaryllis and Belladonna, which Nonesuch will release on May 13. Halvorson will perform music from both albums at National Sawdust in Brooklyn on May 18.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.