Secret Keeper (Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump) at Natalie's Coal Fired Pizza

There are almost no artists working today on a higher plane than guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Stephan Crump. Anyone in town lucky enough to see Halvorson lead her thrilling quintet at the Wexner Center, or her earlier, searching work with Taylor Ho Bynum, Jessica Pavone, and Tatsuya Nakatani, at a variety of DIY art spaces (usually booked by Gerard Cox), didn’t forget her tone, her melodic invention, or her rhythmic imagination. Crump’s held down the center of and lifted up bands as different as Vijay Iyer’s intricate, throbbing jazz at the Wexner Center and Jen Chapin’s knotty, stab-you-in-the-heart folk at Natalie’s. These are two players who sound like no one else and demand to be heard.

As good as their other work is – and Halvorson’s solo slot at this year’s Big Ears in Knoxville made my knees weak – there’s a particular kind of magic hearing them in their duo, Secret Keeper. For you fans of improvisation, new music, jazz, whatever you want to call it, who missed them last year – and I’m sorry to say that’s most of you – Columbus gets another chance at Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza on Tuesday, September 20th (tickets here). I had the pleasure of speaking with Crump by phone earlier this month. Parts of our conversation, as well as videos of this not-to-be-missed duo, are below the cut.

About their meeting, Crump said, “After circling around one another for years, I saw her trio at a club in Manhattan in 2010 or 2011. She said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve been wanting to meet you; we’ve got to play together.’ A lot of musicians say that, but Mary’s a sincere person, and it actually happened. We got together at my home studio and brought some compositions but decided to start by improvising together. I put up some mics just in case something happened…and those improvisations turned out to be our first record, Super Eight.”

We talked about what creates that kind of chemistry. “Not that there’s not ego, but it’s about trying to break beyond ego. To really make yourself vulnerable and open your eyes; to turn yourself inside out in a sense. To be fully giving and also fully sensitized and receptive to what others are giving and that includes all the energies in this space, even beyond the musicians. Not everybody is willing to do that because you know we’re all dealing with different layers of self-protectiveness; the different barriers that we put up.”

“I think I recognize a quality of immediate contextualization that good improvisers can offer one another. A lot of times when we’re playing our compositions, the improvisation is completely wide open and sometimes we’re just starting from scratch creating a composition fully in the moment you know. When that happens it’s all about creating structures individually that have enough logic to stand on their own. But at the same time, our interweaving and shape shifting is in immediate contextualization with what the other person is doing. You have to be putting information forward but you also have to be receptive; simultaneously yielding, to some degree, at the same time.”

“I’m not compelled to solve the mystery behind that. And I think you know the danger zone for younger improvisers, younger not necessarily in age but experience. I always, when I’m trying to communicate my ideas to a student or a group of students, try to draw that distinction between responsiveness and contextualization and mimicking. I think when we’re learning to improvise we do it by mimicry whether in performances or recordings of our heroes or when we’re just starting out and learning to play with other people. A lot of time the tendency is to say Oh, you played that here. I can show you that I heard what you did. I can play it back at you. But that doesn’t make for interesting music.”

By contrast, “Those very first notes that [Mary and I] played together, while it was happening, I wasn’t entirely sure even if it was working. It was a bracing experience because she has such a powerfully unique voice on the instrument.” It’s incredibly rare for the first notes a group – of any size – to play together to be worth memorializing. Almost stratospheric chances against that early an improvisation being as captivating and mysterious as Super Eight. “Even if your partner is doing something quite different, I feel like whenever you and your partner are offering structures and gestures that have a strong enough logic or identity on their own, the juxtaposition of those things will be interesting in and of itself. Or hopefully should be, if it’s the right people together.”

For their latest record, Emerge, both Crump and Halvorson brought intriguing compositions written directly for their two voices and the organic simpatico they share. “Each of us brought four compositions and then we added one standard, the old Irving Berlin tune, ‘What’ll I Do.’ We recorded it in the summertime, also in my home studio in Brooklyn. A really powerful rainstorm started right when we started recording [the standard]. We had never played it together before. Each of us sort of prepared in advance and we did the first take, and it was like, ‘Oh OK, I get an idea of how we might approach this.’ Right before we started the second take, that summer storm kicked into high gear. It was making enough noise that it was sort of going to get through even with my soundproof window situation. So I went with it. Opening the windows wide open and letting the storm bleed into the microphones. And so that opens the second record. You hear the rain coming along with the instruments which was pretty special.

The future entails “Figuring out what to do. We’ve got some touring this fall including the Columbus, of course, September and December. We are still in the planning stages of what to do for our next recording:  you know we have this interesting structure that came about with the first thoroughly improvised  album then each of us contributing compositions for the second. I think we’re interested in exploring a different mode of collaboration for the third. We’re working towards shaping what we want to do with that third album, conceptually.” Similarly, a week before Secret Keeper comes to Columbus, Crump releases

Simultaneously, a week before Secret Keeper comes to Columbus, Crump releases Rhombal written in honor of his late brother and performed with a quartet of heavyweights: Ellery Eskelin on reeds, Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. This personal record will also be available for purchase at the merch table at the Natalie’s show.

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