Longstanding musical partnerships are a lot like ordinary friendships. Over time, as you become familiar with a buddy’s speech patterns, thought processes, personal history and upbringing, moral code, sense of humor, even his or her annoying tics (all of which, if you’ve managed to stay friends for a while, most likely fall into line with your own), you develop an easygoing shorthand. You relax and trust each other. Otherwise, why hang out anymore?
Violist Jessica Pavone and guitarist Mary Halvorson, who will perform together at the Big Room in New Haven on February 18, became friends 10 years ago in New York City. Halvorson had recently graduated from Wesleyan University, Pavone a few years before that from the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. They met at a party, discovered they had mutual friends and interests, became neighbors and started playing music together, as musicians often do.
“We had a routine where once a week we’d make dinner and play,” said Pavone, who spoke to the Advocate by phone from her apartment in Brooklyn. “We each approached it as ‘I’m going to bring a new piece every time we get together.’ It was pretty compositional at the start, more than just off-the-cuff.”
Halvorson, also by phone from Brooklyn, said their earliest pieces were “short little vignettes” that developed over time. “That was when we were getting to know each other musically,” she said. “Just starting to write for each other’s instruments. It’s also when we started doing gigs together.”
Ten years have passed, and Pavone and Halvorson have continued to play together, though no longer once a week. They’ve recorded four albums together (three as a duo and one with drummer Ches Smith and bassist Devin Hoff), the latest of which, Departure of Reason, was released last year. It’s an eye-opening collection of pieces that builds on their previous work together, mixing thought-provoking compositional ideas with bursts of inspired improvisation, like two minutes into “That Other Thing,” the opening track, where Halvorson shifts effortlessly into a higher gear, as Pavone vamps on double-stopped chords, then follows Halvorson’s solo with her own elegant, legato lines. The guitar-viola instrumentation, augmented by vocals on a few compositions, lends both an intimacy and expansiveness to their music that’s lacking in a lot of chamber jazz (or indie pop, or alt-classical, or chamber-indie-pop-jazz, or whatever you choose to call it, although it’s probably better to avoid labels).
“We are both improvisers,” Pavone said. “As we progress, there are pieces that don’t incorporate improvisation, but I have an improvisational language with her that I don’t have with anyone else. Both of those elements [composition and improvisation] are in our music and sometimes one is given more weight than the other... I’m usually the one who writes without improvisation. That’s just my aesthetic... I like to know where things are, although I wouldn’t say that I’m a control freak.”
Halvorson agreed. “Jess writes a lot of songs, and she also writes a lot of through-composed works. My music is more in the jazz world, so on the records there is a blend of through-composed and improvised stuff, although her pieces do have them as well.” Halvorson explained that two types of improvisation — what she called the “noise-related type” (listen around four minutes into “Hyphen” and you’ll get the idea) and improvising over a chord progression — get worked in, but she and Pavone usually don’t plan out which one goes where. “We do try to mix it up,” Halvorson said. “We don’t talk about where we are going.”
Much has changed in the 10 years since they first met. Both women have become highly respected composers and performers around New York. In addition to teaching guitar and composition privately and collaborating with Pavone, Halvorson records and plays with her own trio and quintet (she’s set to release Bending Bridges, a new quintet recording, on May 8), in the rock band People, and in a number of eclectic ensembles: Crackleknob, MAP, the Thirteenth Assembly, Marc Ribot’s Sun Ship, and groups led by Anthony Braxton, Tom Rainey, Curtis Hasselbring and several others. Pavone, who earned a master’s degree from Brooklyn College in 2005 and teaches young musicians in Connecticut, fronts Army of Strangers and the Pavones, joins Halvorson in the Thirteenth Assembly, performs with Braxton, Matthew Welch, Jason Cady and several other composer-bandleaders and has landed several high-profile grants and commissions.
“A few years into it, we were both busy and weren’t neighbors anymore,” Halvorson said. “But it was also easier to play together at that point because we knew each other’s music. The pieces just naturally getting longer and more involved. It sort of happened that way.”
It’s hard to say if the music they’ve created together is successful because of the friendship they share or the other way around. “The first album came out in 2005,” Pavone said. “I don’t know if that changed anything per se... It wasn’t with a record being a turning point. We started touring when that came out two or three times a year, and that’s when the pattern changed.”
Though neither musician is a trained singer, Halvorson said they began incorporating vocals because it was “something we wanted, the music wanted.” They’ve also toyed with adding covers.
“I wanted to experiment with them,” Halvorson said. “Covers have always been interesting. They are really hard to do without making people just want to listen to the original recordings.”
Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone, Feb. 18, 8 p.m., $10, The Big Room, 319 Peck St., New Haven, (203) 433-2275, uncertaintymusic.com