Mary Halvorson: Amaryllis / Belladonna review | John Fordham’s jazz album of the month

The release of two contrasting albums demonstrate how far this inventive, singleminded guitarist has come, and offers a glimpse of a dazzling future

The tenaciously inventive Massachusetts-born guitarist Mary Halvorson swapped classical violin for an electric guitar when she heard Jimi Hendrix at 11, and a biology degree for a life in music when she met avant-jazz composing, sax-improvising legend Anthony Braxton at a college jazz workshop. Halvorson has since forged a 20-year career embracing multiple DownBeat magazine best guitar awards, dozens of albums as a guest or leader, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and much else.

Halvorson’s current double release, Amaryllis and Belladonna, shows how far this singleminded original has come, and affords a glimpse of how far she may go. Amaryllis was mostly conceived for a six-piece improv band; Belladonna for New York’s contemporary-classical Mivos string quartet – but both sessions confirm how years of jaggedly lyrical solo and ensemble improvising and a quirkily subversive affection for mainstream music (a fondness shared with Braxton) have now nurtured a composer of unpredictable but warmly expressive character.

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