Essential New Music: Mary Halvorson’s “Amaryllis & Belladonna”

What new skill did you pick up during the 2020 lockdown? Teaching math and affect management to your kids? Defeating the built-in faults of unemployment-benefits-application websites that have clearly been designed to break down before you submit your claim? Baking sourdough bread? When the gig cancellations rolled in, Mary Halvorson sat down and taught herself orchestration. 

Already a bandleader and guitarist of renown, Halvorson continued the self-challenging path that has led her, in recent years, to branch out from jazz in order to take on fresh instrumental combinations, lyric-writing and increasingly cross-genre composition. Halvorson doesn’t just figure out how to do some new thing; she pushes herself to do something new that tops what she has already achieved.

With the group Code Girl, whose second album was recorded in December 2019, each of her songs emulates a different poetic form, ready to be imbued with life by when voiced by singers Amirtha Kidambi, Maria Grand and Robert Wyatt. Yeah, that Robert Wyatt; if you want to know if what you’ve done is worth something, try to get someone of Wyatt’s stature to come out of retirement to work on it, and see how you do. On those terms, Amaryllis and Belladonna, which are paired on vinyl or sold as two separate CDs, are a complete success.

Belladonna came first. Its five compositions for electric guitar and string quartet reconcile the formal, intimate interaction of chamber music with an unforced-yet-unerring sense of swing. In performance, the guitarist and the Mivos String Quartet become one unit, realizing dynamic shifts with sensitivity and nuance. On “Nodding Yellow,” a bold cello melody creates a framework for starbursts of pizzicato high string. Soon, Halvorson slips a pulse underneath, fixes it in place with digital delay, then reinforces the groove with terse single notes. The piece evolves as these performance elements swap roles, dropping in and out of the mix in a dance full of suspense and vertiginous derring-do. 

Taken with the possibilities she discovered while developing music for strings, Halvorson subsequently folded them into the sounds of a new ensemble. The Amaryllis band includes drummer Tomas Fujiwara, trombonist Jacob Garchik and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (all veterans of earlier Halvorson groups), as well as newcomers Patricia Brennan on vibes and Nick Dunston on bass. Halvorson’s writing for the combo is varied in style, but consistently fluent. “Night Shift” starts with a quick, bright guitar melody, which is lofted with rhythmic grace and then progressively bulked by the ideas of successive soloists while Halvorson adds psychedelic touches in the background. “Anesthesia,” on the other hand, is a brooding dirge, with the horns stirring in contrasting affective signifiers and the dissonant undercurrents. The band’s vocabulary established, Halvorson next deploys the Mivos String Quartet on the LP’s second side as an enhancer, brightening and darkening each piece’s tonal colors. 

The pandemic-imposed layoff may have given Halvorson the time to broaden her arranging chops. But one of the most remarkable things about her new compositions is that, despite being played by her largest ensemble to date, they unfold with uncluttered clarity, expressing some of her most memorable melodies yet. Halvorson isn’t just doing more; she’s getting even better.

—Bill Meyer