Thumbscrew: Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara – Thumbscrew [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform, Rune 365, 55:29 [1/21/14] ****:
(Mary Halvorson – guitar; Michael Formanek – doublebass; Tomas Fujiwara – drums)
Don’t try to pigeonhole instrumental/jazz trio Thumbscrew. The name might imply they’re ready to assault eardrums, perhaps like one of John Zorn’s punk-jazz outings, but that’s not what Thumbscrew does. Those familiar with the members, though, should have an idea of what to expect. Guitarist Mary Halvorson studied with Anthony Braxton, has been associated with the Brooklyn music scene since the early 2000s, leads her own groups, and participated in last year’s Sun Ra-inspired project, Living by Lanterns. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara is also a NYC musician involved with Living by Lanterns, is in the Steve Lacy tribute band Ideal Bread, and runs his own group. Bassist Michael Formanek is the best-known of the three. He’s appeared as either sideman and frontman since the 1980s, has partnered with saxophonist Tim Berne, and is a jazz educator. Halvorson and Fujiwara previously worked together, but the threesome connected when the bassist, drummer and guitarist were briefly in Taylor Ho Bynum’s large ensemble (he was also in Living by Lanterns). The threesome bonded, entered Brooklyn’s Bunker studio in April 2013, and the outcome is the 55-minute, self-titled Thumbscrew debut.
This is a collaborative unit in every sense of the word. Compositions are equally divided: three from each player, a total of nine tracks, which range from under two minutes to over eight minutes in length. The artists also establish a group identity where no one represents the de facto head. Even the record’s mix doesn’t promote one musician over another. Halvorson’s hollow-body, Guild electric guitar is reserved in volume, but not in imaginative resonance, so Formanek’s acoustic double bass and Fujiwara’s drum kit are matched in auditory dimensions. This is forward-looking, contemporary instrumental music which nods to jazz, progressive rock, avant-garde and free jazz, but is beholden to no specific genre. While there are slightly abrasive instances, the emphasis is on expert improvisation, not aggressive music without any audience rapport.
The opener, Fujiwara’s “Cheap Knock Off,” is supposedly penned as a response to Formanek’s latest ECM work, 2012’s Small Places. Certainly, the tune’s spiny guitar lines and bristly bass have a similarly slanted perspective. Halvorson is the focus and shows what can be done with six strings, a fast pick, unconventional chords and slices of distortion. Fujiwara’s second piece, “Nothing Doing,” is a concise, 90-second cut. In the climax, Halvorson and Formanek rush through a grunge rock/metal ascent before the trio smashes to the finale. That snippet leads into Fujiwara’s third number, “Goddess Sparkle,” which contrasts a taut and driving design with a windier posture. Halvorson uses an effects pedal to make improvisational choices, and provides a loose solo structure with zooming, darting and occasionally disconcerting noises.
Formanek wrote the title track, which is relatively restrained but far from sedate. The trio investigates variants on the main theme. Formanek slips from melodic and harmonic dissonance, to being the mooring rope for Halvorson and Fujiwara, who weave and zigzag along an idiosyncratic route. Formanek’s “Buzzard’s Breath” takes a different course. It has a rougher edge, formulated nearer to a jazz-rock template. Halvorson’s guitar is harsher, more forceful, and she sometimes attacks the strings with weight comparable to King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. That’s a warm-up to “Still…Doesn’t Swing,” which does swing, albeit in its own way. This also exhibits a spiky mannerism, and gradually curves toward a rock-inclined guitar solo which features Halvorson’s robust picking, from genteel fretboard gliding to a thorny, single-note presentation, a quality emulated by Fujiwara’s drum fills and cymbal crashes, and Formanek’s bass.
Halvorson’s material is correspondingly adventurous. The eight-plus-minute “Fluid Hills in Pink” has an unassuming but noteworthy theme initially expressed via a duet between Formanek’s woody bass and Fujiwara’s complex rhythms. At the halfway mark, Halvorson joins in and adopts the melody for her own harmonic considerations. Halvorson’s other two pieces act as closing statements. The mostly ethereal “Falling Too Far” offsets shadow and light and has the kind of dim illumination which replicates the descent into a mysterious dreamland. Halvorson’s strings have a brighter shade differentiated against Fujiwara’s active brushes and Formanek’s dusky bass. “Line to Create Madness,” an assertive album-ender, has a post-bop inclination which is married to an avant-garde expansion. Halvorson again multiplies her guitar effects and tones, and furnishes a tense undertow, while the bass and drums run through rhythmic permutations. Throughout the abundant and varied musical settings, Thumbscrew illustrates a prolific interaction where creativity has no boundaries. If a listener wants something which some may term “outsider” music, which means music away from the norm, Thumbscrew is an inspired option. Unlike some existing albums which boast of dissonance, the Thumbscrew record also contains outstanding studio sound which highlights the trio’s nuances as well as their raucous moments.
TrackList: Cheap Knock Off; Thumbscrew; Fluid Hills in Pink; Nothing Doing; Goddess Sparkle; Buzzard’s Breath; Still…Doesn’t Swing; Falling Too Far; Line to Create Madness.