When I reviewed Mary Halvorson’s ‘Illusionary Sea’ (which made my Top Music of 2013) I noted that there was a trade-off of intimacy for the larger ideas that are only possible with the broader palette of a septet. Now Halvorson is back leading the trio Thumbscrew in their self-titled debut recording, and it is simply amazing.
Musical Genre: Jazz
Where to buy: Cuneiform Records
Artist: Thumbscrew – Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara and Michael Formanek
The band’s name might conjure a fearsome image, but Thumbscrew makes inviting music full of wonder and discovery. A recently formed collective of improvisational masters, the trio features guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, who can often be found working together in an array of arresting settings, and bassist Michael Formanek, a creative catalyst on jazz’s adventurous frontiers for more than three decades.
Formanek, Halvorson and Fujiwara are all known for their prodigious capabilities in free improv settings, but Thumbscrew is more of a composer’s vehicle. While many cooperative bands draw on material recycled from other projects, “one of the things we said at the beginning is let’s just write music for Thumbscrew and it will only be Thumbscrew music,” says Formanek. “It really is a three-composer trio, and all of our tunes have our basic aesthetics attached. But we want everybody to have input. Nobody’s afraid to make a decision. It’s one of the first co-ops I’ve been in where everyone’s really willing to take control at any given moment.”
There is something about Mary Halvorson and the trio format. When you look at her solo output – Dragon’s Head is a trio album, and ‘Saturn Sings’ and ‘Bending Bridges’ have half of their tracks dominated by trio play, leaving only ‘Illusionary Sea’ as a true large ensemble work – you see trio play dominate.
With Thumbscrew you get Halvorson in a very comfortable trio setting, with Michael Formanek on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Fujiwara and Halvorson worked together on Living By Lanterns (on my ‘Best of 2012’ list), and began working with Formanek by accident and have continued ever since.
Thumbscrew is a ‘trio of equals’. Of the nine songs, each member contributes three compositions. Initially it is hard to distinguish the songs, but pretty soon you start to get a feel for what is fully through-composed (Halvorson), what is wildly open (Formanek) and what falls between (Fujiwara).
The songs range from flowing and melodic to harsh and abrasive; ‘Cheap Knock Off’ is a funky tune with complex melody and rhythmic structure that flow over a groove that is as elusive as it is captivating. The trio is so full of energy that it often spills over as Halvorson’s solos warp out and distort.
Each time I do a review I choose a ‘quick hit’ song – something that is my favorite or most exemplifies the music on the album. But in this case I had a REALLY hard time! Why? Because there are many songs that would fill that role. I have the Bandcamp stream of ‘Cheap Knock Off’ embedded, and that is a great song. So is the crazed onslaught of “Still…Doesn’t Swing” that I chose as my quick-hit song due to how it utterly transforms from beginning to end while retaining key components intact.
Two of my favorites are ‘iThumbscrew’ and ‘Fluid Hills in Pink’. The former is playful and bouncy and intricate and melodic in a way that reminds me of John Abercrombie’s ‘Gateway’ trio of the mid-70s. But at the same time it is thoroughly modern, reflecting the styles of musicians who have grown up in the world of pop dominance and digital downloads everywhere. One of my favorite things about Halvorson and her bandmates on various recordings is that regardless of context none are afraid to show off their roots and influences.
‘Fluid Hills in Pink’ features a lead line by Formanek backed by Halvorson and Fujiwara, gradually leading to an intricate duet between bass and drums that completely changes the landscape of the composition so that when Halvorson returns she is playing fragments and angular arpeggiated runs. Yet the way the trio constantly breaks apart and reforms none of this feels out of place or jarring.
I was surprised when I looked that the 9 song album is 55 minutes long – I would have estimated it as being much shorter. That is because it just seems to fly by each time I listen, as I become absorbed in the music and the interplay between these excellent artists. ‘Illusionary Sea’ left me wanting a more intimate and free-flowing offering from Mary Halvorson, and partnered with Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara on Thumbscrew, that is exactly what I got.
‘Quick Hit’ Song: “Still…Doesn’t Swing” – an amazingly complex piece of music that is at once fun and challenging. Starting off with an interesting angular unison guitar & bass part over a shuffle beat, soon we are getting a rather oblique melody over a modified shuffle rhythm from bass and drums that drifts back into the unison parts, until … it all breaks loose into a driving rock rhythm – but one that has shifting signatures that doesn’t allow you to get comfortable.
Then Halvorson has a large space for solo improvisation before the trio reforms and begins a fragmented restatement of the early section. Suddenly we are in a space that feels as much like King Crimson’s ‘Red’ as a jazz trio – yet the underpinning harmony is the initial shuffle beat turned inside-out.
Would I recommend?: Absolutely! As mentioned, this is ferocious and uncompromising music, but also completely fascinating and offers new insights with each listen. It would have been at or near the top of my 2013 music list, and I cannot imagine that won’t be near the top of 2014’s list as well.
Suggested audience: I will restate what I said last year for Illusionary Sea – “Look … it is STILL Mary Halvorson.” What that means is it is at best tolerated in my house, and is not something most audiences are open to hearing. This music is cerebral and angular and dissonant and requires a high level of engagement.
Source: Publisher provided review download
Here is a Bandcamp stream for the first track: