Mary Halvorson: Amaryllis & Belladonna

The improvising guitarist has taken composition lessons and blended string quartet and jazz sextet with success


For her debut on Nonesuch Records, guitarist Mary Halvorson has recorded two “modular and interlocking” suites, released as a two-vinyl LP set or as two separate CDs. The first suite, Amaryllis, features six tunes by an improvisatory sextet joined on three songs by the Mivos string quartet – the largest ensemble Halvorson has ever written for – while the second suite, Belladonna, comprises five through-composed pieces for the Mivos Quartet – in another first, her debut writing for a string quartet – augmented by Halvorson’s guitar improvisations.

Two of the three opening sextet tracks of Amaryllis are full of urgent playing, the sweet vibes of Patricia Brennan set against the insistent guitar lines and the edgy work of the horn and rhythm sections, the title track a fast-paced excitement of riches over a rolling main theme. In contrast, Anesthesia is stately and at times declamatory, as it picks its way through the melodic haze and imprecise, fazed guitar work.

While writing and arranging for the sextet, Halvorson was listening to a lot of string quartet music, so used the pandemic lockdown to take some composition lessons and “finally go for it”. The result was Belladonna, five austere but vibrant string quartet pieces defined by their occasional pizzicato fingering and strong, unified melodic and rhythmic lines. Moonburn perfectly captures the magic of a moonlit night, while Flying Song is yearning and more strident as Halvorson interprets and develops the piece. The concluding title track is spritely, and suitably menacing in its acidic guitar lines and sawing strings, but the triumph is the slow and gradually disintegrating Haunted Head, the cello lead perfectly poised against the supporting trio plus guitar accompaniment. Belladonna is an adventurous suite of compositions, all the more remarkable for a debut work, that draws as much on the composer’s roots in improvisation and ensemble performance as it does on her newfound compositional skills.

After composing Belladonna, Halvorson wanted to continue writing for strings, so added string parts to the final three Amaryllis sextet pieces, with dynamic success. “Hence the project ultimately circled back to contain both groups, as a tentet. I liked the notion that the projects are modular – they can exist separately or come together as one large ensemble.” To attempt such a joint project, especially as an improvising musician new to writing for strings, must have been a big risk, for jazz sextets and string quartets are quite different beasts. But Halvorson pulls it off magnificently, unifying both suites through her strong compositional skills and her angular, individual approach. What a (joint and collective) triumph.

[Amaryllis]: (1) Night Shift; Anesthesia; Amaryllis; (2) Side Effect; Hoodwink; 892 Teeth (37.51)
[Belladonna]: (3) Nodding Yellow; Moonburn; Flying Song; Haunted Head; Belladonna (37.11)
Halvorson (g) with:
(1) Adam O’Farrill (t); Jacob Garchik (tb); Patricia Brennan (vib); Nick Dunston (b); Tomas Fujiwara (d).
(2) as (1) plus The Mivos Quartet: Olivia De Prato, Maya Bennardo (vn); Victor Lowrie Tafoya (vla); Tyler J Borden (clo).
(3) The Mivos Quartet. NYC, 11–12 September 2021.
Nonesuch Records