Mary Halvorson

Seven Minutes with Mary Halvorson: Poetry and Jazz, Hand in Hand
September 1, 2021 Halvorson Mary

Featured Video: SEVEN MINUTES with… Mary Halvorson,

interview by Nancy Mitchell


Seven Minutes with Mary Halvorson: Poetry and Jazz, Hand in Hand

In September’s Seven Minutes, we’re thrilled to host acclaimed jazz artist and MacArthur Fellow Mary Halvorson, who was named “a rising star jazz artist, and rising star composer of the year” in a recent Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll.

Halvorson talks with us about the challenges and joys of writing song lyrics for the first time in traditional poetic forms, as well as composing the accompanying music for the vocalist and band for her new album Code Girl.


Below are some of the poems/lyrics, as well as a link to the album. It’s terrific, so give it a listen:


Artlessly Falling

Artlessly falling through overstretched arms
delivers the night underground, a hole.
I spool splintered smiles around your gray
eyes, sparklers devouring The Southern Cross.
Old patterns crystallize, form double salt
I feign to dissolve. Eighty-eight stars wild.

Cards leak our future, decidedly wild.
The Fool: unnumbered, white roses in arms,
feathers in hair and his heart sieving salt.
I grip my reveal, an ace in the hole.
The Hierophant hoisting a triple cross,
two fingers skyward in homage to gray.

Pull my hair, dulling from neon to gray,
totaling childish fancies gone wild.
Rescind these feint lines drawn too late across
my odd face. Keep the bubbling ghosts at arm’s
length. Find a last-ditch way to swallow whole
the tastings of a life below the salt.

Trucks blanket Brooklyn with sheets of street salt.
Shoes secrete outlines of mountainous gray.
Snowdrops not yielding this winterized whole-
sale storm. A feasting of wool to breed wild
sweat, wetting regrettable prints on arms.
Denial soaps gentle lies on the cross

we bear. Sweating plastic whiskey, eyes cross.
Cloudy rim pulsing and happy with salt.
Dizzy circles blur into two tonearms.
Medicinal clicks squeeze sleep out of gray
mourning windows. My clarity blows wild
reasons, ever-forming, down that black hole.

You wouldn’t call it that, but it’s a hole—
smothering lackluster limits we cross.
The prognosis clings to my mouth: a wild
hurling of bottleneck wounds rubbed with salt.
The chill of your love (love fading to gray)
unfolds as a serpentine race of arms.

A hole-in-one warns me: not worth his salt.
Crosscut that arctic orbit as a gray
whale: wild, breaching. To hell with your wrong arms.



Walls And Roses

You arrive with daggered hands.
Anonymous spongy fields.
A headless bull in transit,
with a pregnant nest of dimes.

Anonymous spongy fields.
To the front, walls and roses
with a pregnant nest of dimes.
Behind you, a shrinking man.

To the front, walls and roses.
Wary of the hiccupped copse.
Behind you, a shrinking man
subletting a swarm of lives.

Wary of the hiccupped copse,
a headless bull in transit.
Subletting a swarm of lives,
you arrive with daggered hands.



Muzzling Unwashed

Trace amounts of dynamo smolder offbeat eyes.
Well-pressed behind proper dress, shoes and wedded hand.
Muzzling unwashed thoughts not meant to vocalize.

Floozy legs, stockings caught inside a dropped sunrise.
Camouflaged by warblers’ wings trilling reprimand.
Trace amounts of dynamo smolder offbeat eyes.

Fruitless attempts to salvage all the butterflies.
Copycat polkadots branding spurious land.
Muzzling unwashed thoughts not meant to vocalize.

Lavender grasses flatten as they mime disguise,
while shepherds’ purses inhale lives that fast expand.
Trace amounts of dynamo smolder offbeat eyes.

False decorum wells up and boxes out the skies.
Filtered smiles posturing for excess on demand.
Muzzling unwashed thoughts not meant to vocalize.

Out go the insides, hoping to legitimize
a monumental moonlight rigged with contraband.
Trace amounts of dynamo smolder offbeat eyes,
muzzling unwashed thoughts not meant to vocalize.



Lyrics by Mary Halvorson © 2020

Guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson has been described as “a singular talent” (Lloyd Sachs, JazzTimes), ”NYC’s least-predictable improviser” (Howard Mandel, City Arts), “one of the most exciting and original guitarists in jazz—or otherwise” (Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal), and “one of today’s most formidable bandleaders” (Francis Davis, Village Voice). In recent Downbeat Critics Polls Halvorson has been celebrated as guitarist, rising star jazz artist, and rising star composer of the year, and in 2019 she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

Halvorson has released a series of critically acclaimed albums on the Firehouse 12 label, from Dragon’s Head (2008), her trio debut featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith, expanding to a quintet with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon on Saturn Sings (2010) and Bending Bridges (2012), a septet with tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik on Illusionary Sea (2014), and finally an octet with pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn on Away With You (2016). She also released the solo recording Meltframe (2015), and most recently debuted Code Girl (2018), a new ensemble featuring vocalist Amirtha Kidambi (singing Halvorson’s own lyrics), trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, saxophonist/ vocalist Maria Grand, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

One of New York City’s most in-demand guitarists, over the past decade Halvorson has worked with such diverse musicians as Tim Berne, Anthony Braxton, Taylor Ho Bynum, John Dieterich, Trevor Dunn, Bill Frisell, Ingrid Laubrock, Jason Moran, Joe Morris, Tom Rainey, Jessica Pavone, Tomeka Reid, Marc Ribot and John Zorn. She is also part of several collaborative projects, most notably the longstanding trio Thumbscrew with Michael Formanek on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums.