The Wexner Center wraps the jazz portion of their astonishing 2017-2018 season with something truly special: the return of guitarist Mary Halvorson. Halvorson brings her Code Girl ensemble featuring an all-star lineup of Amirtha Kidambi (voice), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) to the Wex on Thursday, March 8 at 8 pm (tickets here). I was lucky to speak with Halvorson by phone; highlights of that conversation, as well as videos of the various components of the band, are below.
There are precious few guitarists possessing as singular a sound or attack as Mary Halvorson. Anytime she makes a visit to Columbus, it’s an event and a gift. I’ve been a massive fan since seeing her as part of Trevor Dunn’s Trio Convulsant at the Bowery Poetry Club (on a bill with The Zs and my old friend Mike Gamble’s band) in 2005 and very soon after seeing her duo with violist Jessica Pavone in 2006 here in town.
For these last 12+ years, I’ve made a point to check any record she put out that hit my radar and catch her live as often as possible. From her righteous earlier appearance at the Wexner Center with her Quintet, to her pair of rapturous shows at Natalie’s with Stephan Crump as Secret Keeper (one of which made my 2015 Live Music Best Of), to Ibeam in Brooklyn, to a solo set that was the best thing I saw in a Big Ears Festival that left me staggered. There’s never a moment her work isn’t rewarding. Even by those high standards, Code Girl is special.
Halvorson said, “I’ve dabbled in singing – with Jessica [Pavone] we sang occasionally – but it was only functional. I thought it would be fun to write for a real singer and a dedicated project of songs.” For that real singer, Halvorson turned to Amirtha Kidambi, powerhouse vocalist of The Elder Ones. “I’ve known Amirtha Kidambi for almost ten years and always admired her singing and her approach. She’s a friend, and I’d seen her sing in various contexts: amazing vocal range, great improviser, great interpreter. I thought she’d be a good fit for this.”
About that process of writing for a voice, Halvorson said, “When I was writing, I would sing them myself along with playing guitar. Of course, Amirtha has a much larger range; even if I was writing stuff too low or too high for my voice, I knew she could hit it. But I wanted to make sure they felt natural for voice. I think it’s very different writing a melody for a trumpet than a voice.”
“She told me exactly what her range was so I felt confident in what I was writing. Of course, I pushed that a little. I wrote some things that are right on the lowest edge of her range, or one of the highest notes, but in those cases, it was what I wanted and that gives us the desired effect. Early in the process, she came over so I could get a sense of what was working and how it was sounding. She was really cool [about that], so I had some help along the way.”
Halvorson spoke about her other melodic and harmonic foil in Code Girl. “When I was thinking about the instrumentation, I thought trumpet would be interesting to have along with voice. Ambrose is a friend. I’m always looking for an excuse to do more playing with him; he’s one of my favorite trumpet players of all time. He and Amirtha had never played together, but I thought it would be an interesting blend.”
“The rhythm section is my partners in the collective Thumbscrew – Michael Formanek [on bass] and Tomas Fujiwara [on drums]. I’ve played with those two a lot; this year we’re putting out two records in June. I thought it would be cool to have a strong foundation – two guys I play with a lot and love playing with – underneath the x-factor of writing for a singer.”
Careful arranging is a hallmark of the other work bearing Halvorson’s name – Trio/Quintet/Septet/Octet. I asked how that played into Code Girl. “It’s not very different from the quintet. All the songs are structured – it might not be a totally conventional structure – and arranged and thought-out in advance. There’s room for improvisation, but if I make adjustments with the band [to the overall structure], they’re pretty minor. If we play through something and I think I’m not so sure about that transition, we’ll try a different approach. For the most part, the songs are fairly structurally sound when I bring them into the band.”
Halvorson said, “I spent about a year writing the music, and it ended up being a double album because I was enjoying writing for it. Whenever I’ve worked with lyrics in the past, I always wrote the lyrics first then fit the music to the lyrics. The lyric-writing for me was experimentation – there was no overarching theme. The name of the band and record is Code Girl, and I think a lot of the lyrics are coded, mysterious. I cover a lot of subjects, but a lot of the songs should be open to interpretation. Some are a little more nonsensical than others.”
The time spent writing and working with the band Halvorson mentions is evident in the intricacy and plumbing of new textures on the Code Girl debut for which this show is part of the release tour. Songs like “Accurate Hit” feel like Derek Bailey exploding a 60s soul ballad with the chopped, intoxicating flamenco-grime flourish Halvorson’s fans know and love. “In the Moment Before” floats, almost diaphanous, full of space and light. As the vocal hints at something ominous, Halvorson brings in distortion, growing thicker and heavier, ringed by Akinmusire’s weaving dance.
Code Girl is exactly the kind of thing that made the Wexner Center so vital to me as I was growing up. And it’s precisely the sort of show I’d point to if anyone asked why Chuck Helm’s tenure as curator was so remarkable. It feels like hearing a language you know well only spoken in a new dialect. I look forward to seeing the walls shake.