Mary Halvorson

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Amaryllis Review

by Thom Jurek

Guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson kicks off her Nonesuch Records tenure with the simultaneous release of Amaryllis and Belladonna, two "modular and interlocking" suites she debuted live at Brooklyn's Roulette in the fall of 2021. The albums are available digitally, as a double LP or as separate CDs. The former is performed by Halvorson's new sextet, composed of top-shelf improvisers including drummer Tomas Fujiwara, trumpeter Chico O'Farrill, trombonist Jacob Garchik, vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, and bassist Nick Dunston. On the back half, the group is appended by chamber ensemble Mivos Quartet.

"Night Shift" is the electrifying set opener from Amaryllis. Initiated by a syncopated bass, drum, and vibes intro, Halvorson joins in with a knotty, arpeggiated melody while they erect a rhythmic development in 10/8. The music opens to greet the horns that elevate the dynamic tension. The sextet crisscross modern post-bop, prog rock, and modern classical composition with reverb and other sonic treatments by Halvorson and producer John Dieterich (Deerhoof), before Brennan and O'Farrill deliver deft, imaginative solos. Dunston kicks off the title track with a knotty bass figure before Halvorson and Fujiwara enter. Brennan joins in just before the horns, which supply the work's loping narrative thrust. The interplay between O'Farrill and Brennan is canny; they move toward and around one another as Fujiwara's snare and crash cymbals drive them, and Halvorson paints shard-like chordal figures as the glue between them. The final third finds horns and guitar in a dramatic, vamp-like dialogue with drums, vibes, and bass in a contrasting yet complementary conversation. The Mivos Quartet -- Olivia De Prato and Maya Bennardo (violins), Victor Lowrie Tafoya (viola), and Tyler J. Borden (cello) -- introduce "Side Effect" with assonant harmonic pulses before Brennan cues the sextet. Fujiwara's syncopated swing is the driving engine. The band crisscross harmonies with funky breaks and basslines before a punchy, nearly soaring solo from Garchik. Halvorson plays surf-style chords and single-string phrases in the margins. "Hoodwink" is introduced by Mivos, who improvises during the first 90 seconds. Halvorson, framed by Dunston and Fujiwara's brushes, grounds them in a spectral, shard-like chord progression. The horns offer gloriously contrasting harmonies before Dunston episodically introduces, then frames and binds their resonant dialogue with him and one another. Eventually he coaxes Mivos back in as the rest of the band comps and attenuates. Halvorson's guitar solo expands the nearly lyric chorus a phrase at a time. She twins notes with her pedals, then inverts melody lines before opening the gate to the horns again before closing with cinematic aplomb. The language Halvorson constructs on Amaryllis is lush yet balanced and symmetrical. Her harmonic core, though fluid, offers a generous tonal palette for ensemble players and soloists alike, no matter who ultimately converses with who, while her melodies are simultaneously memorable, complex, and thought-provoking.

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