AMN Reviews: Mary Halvorson – Amaryllis (2022; Nonesuch Records)

Guitarist Mary Halvorson has a formula – she just doesn’t always follow it. The first track on this new sextet release begins with a jagged rhythm over which Halvorson solos. Her bandmates (Patricia Brennan on vibraphone, Nick Dunston on bass, Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Jacob Garchik on trombone, and Adam O’Farrill on trumpet) pick up pieces of the rhythm as well as related themes. It is relatively easy to determine which parts are composed and which are improvised. These themes develop and flow around one another in a fashion that has been used by Halvorson in the past, as well as by various avant-rock (and creative jazz) groups. If you are a Halvorson fan, this is all good and not far from what you expected.

But Halvorson’s influences are wide and deep. Her innovations might hide her more conventional proclivities. She clearly appreciates the standards, whether jazz, blues, or otherwise, and this appreciation colors her own works. Subtle nods to more conventional stylings appear throughout this album, even as it leans toward the experimental end of modern jazz. The chimeric nature of Halvorson’s writing is both obvious and yet subtle as she deftly dances between genres.

Amaryllis is one of two companion albums released by Halvorson last month. It features the aforementioned players forming a sextet with Halvorson, with help from the Mivos String Quartet on the second half. The pieces are of uniformly medium length, around 6-7 minutes each.

The title track is a compelling romp with Dunston and Halvorson providing a running (as opposed to walking) pattern over which the horns provide the main melodic structures with Brennan offering up accentuations. The tune moves along at a nice clip, even as Halvorson switches to her signature note-bending. It is hard not to get caught up in the group’s joyful expressiveness.

Side Effect begins with Mivos, and eventually the core group joins in. While there is no shortage of compositional complexity and sophisticated chops (not to mention a killer solo from Dunston), the overall feel is cinematic and slightly retro despite moments of start-stop rhythms.

Hoodwink is something of an outlier, with Mivos again beginning the piece but this time with a less-structured modern classical approach until Halvorson comes in on acoustic, followed by the rest. Mivos’s playing becomes sweeter to match the emotion of Garchik and O’Farrill, while Fujiwara and Dunston gently push the boundaries, serving as a reminder that this is not your grandparent’s jazz.

Amaryllis ends wistfully, bringing its bouncy opening around 180 degrees. 892 Teeth is deliberately paced and more sparsely populated, with Mivos serving mostly in the background, beneath soloists (with kudos to Brennan). But in the last two minutes, the piece goes avant, with an effects-laden lead providing a discordant break before returning to introspection.

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