There’s something deeply fearless about Mary Halvorson’s new album, Meltframe. The record collects a set of solo guitar covers Halvorson record when, apparently, she wasn’t fronting one of her own bands or playing with other big modern jazz names. The tracklist Halvorson chose for the record includes compositions by some imposing jazz names, from McCoy Tyner to Ornette Coleman to Duke Ellington. There are also some more modern names like Chris Lightcap and Tomas Fujiwara, both of whom have collaborated with Halvorson on other projects. But no matter the source material, whether it’s a classic standard or a more obscure French guitar number unearthed, Halvorson makes it her own on this dynamic, challenging, and endlessly rewarding set.
The demands of the record are immediate on the first number, “Cascades”. Originally written and recorded by Oliver Nelson for his classic 1961 record, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, the players on that first version comprise a litany of jazz greats. Nelson played on that record with Roy Haynes, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, Freddie Hubbard, and Paul Chambers. Halvorson seems more invigorated than weighed down by the long line of jazz history. She turns the bop tune into a distorted, ravaged reimagining of the tune. Her notes slice through the air, first in staccato clumps, then in rapid-fire scale runs, and finally in a series of brilliant soloing vamps that make the song rise and fall, not cascading so much as cresting in great white caps of noise and then bottoming out.
The song sets the scene for Meltframe in that it sounds nothing like any other track that follows. Halvorson takes Annette Peacock’s “Blood” and turns it into some sort of deconstructed flamenco piece that sometimes veers into a jazz version of the psych atmospherics of Wilburn Burchette. But if she whips up “Blood” and “Cascades”, she takes “Ida Lupino” — composed by Carla Bley, though perhaps most famously recorded by her husband Paul — and strips it down to its quiet, melancholy core. The songs moves from low rattling chords to high trilling ones, as if it were some sort of back and forth from one part of the guitar’s neck to the other. And yet it doesn’t feel so much oppositional as parallel, both the light and the shadow it casts.
In less canonical compositions like the ones above, it may seem easier for Halvorson to find her own footing. Her ability, however, to bring the same originality to songs by Coleman, Ellington, and Tyner, is what makes this album truly arresting. She begins Coleman’s “Sadness” by messing with the tuning of her guitar, and in that toying she seems to be shaking loose of the original, and once she does she veers into slide work and rolled up phrasings that may recall John Fahey or some blues player more than anyone from the jazz tradition. Ellington’s “Solitude” was somber, but it was still big enough to fill a music hall. Halvorson’s version leans on the space around her, slowing the phrasings down so much the space between them feels fraught with tension. And yet she constantly lets up on that tension, providing ringing notes that smooth over the moment before letting that quiet ratchet the song up again.
“Aisha” may not be as radical as these two, but it’s the best of the bunch. Halvorson uses her signature delay effects to let the guitar rise and fall, often mid-note, in the mix. It feels weightless until she kicks on the distortion and chords fill up the space with fury. But then the song clears out again, and those beautiful fills and solo runs seem to build on and twist work from the likes of Jim Hall and the more out-there stuff recorded by Linda Cohen.
Meltframe is the kind of record that evokes the history of music that came before it. Halvorson may use the work of these greats, and some modern greats as well, as a jumping off point for her own exploration, but if the songs suggest other folk and blues influences at moments this seems less intentional than the result of some sort of osmosis. Halvorson has made enough great music to cement her status as one of the best musicians working in jazz today. Meltframe, though suggests she is more than that: she is one of the finest working guitarists in any genre. Of course, though, despite her wide sonic palate, her love of jazz wins out at every turn. And here, she knows that the best way to honor jazz’s history is honor the greats, give a nod to the past, and then break it all down so you can innovate your way to the future.