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Unchained melodies 

Secret Keeper: Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump

At the age of 11, Mary Halvorson was growing in Boston and studying violin. It was the early 1990's but Halvorson and her friends were enamored of music from the late-1960's, groups like The Allman Brothers Band and the Grateful Dead.

When she heard Jimi Hendrix that was it. She put down her violin.

"I got a black-and-white Stratocaster and tablature books and tried to figure out how he was playing what he was playing," Halvorson says. "I was fascinated with his music."

Twenty-three years later, Halvorson is disrupting the jazz scene with her unique guitar style. She is best known for her work on the avant-garde side and the Hendrix influence occasionally bursts through in her unorthodox approach to the instrument.

"He played some insane stuff and it's pretty timeless," says Halvorson, who visits the Bop Shop Thursday in Secret Keeper, a duo with bassist Stephan Crump. The show is a CD release event for their new album, "Emerge."

Back in her teens, Halvorson studied with a jazz guitarist and focused on standards. She discovered Wes Montgomery and listened to her parents' records by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk.

She still has the mixtape a friend made featuring the music of Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. And she remembers buying a duo record by Anthony Braxton and Derek Bailey.

When it came time for college, Halvorson went to Wesleyan University in Connecticut to study science. But Braxton, a leading figure in avant-garde music, was teaching in the music department. She put down her science.

"I was so blown away by Anthony and the whole music department that I pretty quickly switched over to music," Halvorson says. "The main thing about Anthony Braxton is he's such a wonderful person, so encouraging, so positive, and so creative.

"He encourages students to explore and take risks. In his classes you would play his large ensemble music and small ensemble music. Just seeing the scope of what he does, it made me realize that you can do anything. There aren't rules you have to follow specifically; there's so much creativity to explore.

"But at the same time he has such respect for tradition. He taught a class on Sun Ra and Stockhausen, and one called 'History of the Jazz Saxophone.'"

Since then Halvorson has played in several of Braxton's groups and recorded with him. But while in college she had some serious thinking to do about her future.

"The biggest decision for me was whether or not to be a musician because I'm a pretty practical person and it's a pretty impractical way of making a living," Halvorson says. "Before I met Anthony, I never really considered that this might be something I wanted to pursue. Then, when I realized I did want to pursue it, I struggled with it because it just seemed like, how do you make a living as a musician, especially one playing less than mainstream music?

"When I made that decision I had no expectation that I would be able to make a living playing the kind of music I wanted to play. What I decided was, if I'm comfortable having an office job for the rest of my life, then I'm going to go for this."

Halvorson worked in administration and bookkeeping for several years when she first moved to New York. But as her reputation grew, she was able to drop her day job and focus on her music. "The fact that I'm making a living doing this is enough for me," she says.

In the 21st-century jazz world it's common for musicians to be in multiple groups, but few are in as many as Halvorson. She plays in more than 20 active ensembles.

"It's definitely different mindsets for different groups but I really enjoy that," Halvorson says. "I like variety and I like the challenges of fitting into different groups and figuring out what those groups might need.

"At the same time I do try to have some kind of a common voice as a musician. It's a balancing act figuring out how to maintain a voice throughout all these different projects but, at the same time, honoring what the project is about and what the music is trying to get across. I only do things that I really like."

The projects range from fairly straight-ahead groups to radical ensembles. According to Halvorson the most out of the ordinary, People, features Kevin Shea on drums; Kyle Forester, bass; and Halvorson, guitar and vocals.

"I'm not a singer," Halvorson says. "Kevin writes the lyrics and they're pretty out there."

As for her role as a side-person in the traditionally male jazz world: "I think that's really changing," Halvorson says. "I play in bands where women outnumber men. I don't feel like it's an issue. I work with great people. I don't get treated differently. I don't distinguish between men and women, I just play with musicians I like."

The first recording by Secret Keeper is all improvised, capturing the first notes the duo played together in Crump's home studio. The duo's new record, "Emerge," consists of compositions. Their shows are combination of both.

"We very rarely prepare in any way," Halvorson says. "We listen and create structures spontaneously, trying to have variety in what we're playing. Sometimes we come up with a title and try to come up with something that fits. We have a piece called 'Mirrors' and a piece called 'Planets.' With those titles in mind we'll try to conjure something different."

Although the avant-garde is not everyone's cup of tea, Halvorson believes it can be an acquired taste.

"It's not necessarily going to be love at first listen; that was my experience," she says. "I didn't like it that much but something about it made me keep coming back and I became more and more drawn into it. I think if people come to it really open and not expecting to hear something that's going to be easy listening there's a lot that can be taken from it."

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