Thumbscrew are one of those rare groups – in this case, three musicians, composers and bandleaders in their own right – who together make music with real synergy. They have a lot of shared history.
Guitarist Mary Halvorson first collaborated with drummer Tomas Fujiwara in Taylor Ho Bynum’s sextet, and the trio came together when bassist Michael Formanek made that group a septet in 2011.
I first heard Halvorson in 2004, when she came to London with Anthony Braxton’s Quintet (playing alongside Ho Bynum). She has a longstanding trio with bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith, and also plays in Fujiwara’s The Hook Up (as has Formanek). She and Fujiwara also play in the cooperative quartet Thirteenth Assembly.
Thumbscrew recorded a self-titled debut debut for Cuneiform in 2014, then formed the kernel of Formanek’s 18-piece group Kolossus, recording The Distance for ECM in 2016 – a superb date, on which Halvorson’s contributions are outstanding.
For Convallaria (Cuneiform), the trio spent two weeks in residency at Pittsburg’s City of Asylum, rehearsing compositions by all three members. The concentrated woodshedding evidently took all their practiced empathy to another level, yielding 11 pieces – 73 minutes of wonderful music.
There’s an open-framework clarity to much of it, particularly Halvorson’s three pieces, with Formanek and Fujiwara pulsing and bustling behind her mercurial, needlepoint-precise lead on her opening cut, “Cleome”.
That track takes the name of a tropical flower, and “Convallaria” likewise takes its name from the Lily of the Valley, which Halvorson describes as “sweetly scented and highly poisonous, which I thought is a good description of Thumbscrew.” And she’s right, particularly nailing the allure of her own liquid style, with its strange tang of alternate tunings and slippery elisions.
The title track is rhythmically steady, with Fujiwara sticking close to a backbeat – just skipping a few to keep everything on the alert. Halvorsonn’s lines keep the loose, bluesy example of Grant Green in sight even as she explores uniquely complex harmonics. A coda introduces new complexities through a striking solo passage for Fujiwara.
Fujiwara studied drumming with Alan Dawson, the man who taught the young Tony Williams, and though he has a lighter touch than Williams there are similar forces at play in his style, which has all the crispness, bounce and swing you could wish for.
His “The Cardinal and the Weathervane” starts urbanely, then breaks into a surprisingly assertive post-rock groove, only to switch back again. “Trigger”, by contrast, is the one piece here that foregoes rhythm altogether in favour of atmosphere – a gentle piece, it’s played with strummed bass and malleted drums, Halvorson’s wiry bent notes seeming to fall apart, abstracted by uncanny distortions.
Formanek gets a lovely, luminous solo on Fujiwara’s “Barn Fire Slum Brew”. The bassist is by twenty years the senior partner in this trio, and, as you might expect from a long-term associate of Tim Berne, his five of the eleven new pieces are among the most varied, arresting and formally complex.
“Sampsonian Rhythms” is a boa-tight ouroboros of music in constant re-creation; its textural mirror opposite, “Screaming Piha”, a haze of storm-gathering, with Halvorson’s abstract, electric discharges irradiating a thunderhead that breaks into unexpected light.
Formanek’s “Tail of the Sad Dog” also takes Halvorson into uncharted territory – this time a soundscape mapped by Formanek’s most turbulent, muscular and telepathic interplay with Fujiwara – but in the end it’s her clarity and economy that draws out its sweet and sour musicality.
“Danse Insensé” is the album’s most light and playful interlude, with Halvorson picking on open strings and Fujiwara patterning taut skins, blocks, kit peripherals and tambourine. By way of contrast, “Spring Ahead”, the last of Formanek’s contributions, begins as its deepest and most introspective, although drawing on the same collective resources of invention.
There’s enough music here for two albums. In classic rock terms this is a double, and one from which you wouldn’t want to drop a single track (though if I had to, it would be “The Cardinal and the Weathervane”; and perhaps the resolution of “Spring Ahead” isn’t 100% convincing, though I suspect I just haven’t grasped its logic yet. Minor quibbles).
The album ends with Halvorson’s gentle “Inevitable”, her songlike lead shuffled along by Fujiwara’s brushes and Formanek’s light touch on bass. It’s like they haven’t even broken a sweat. I’d hate to be a young jazzbo now, listening to this – the sound of the bar for empathetic interaction being re-set so very, very high.
Michael Formanek double bass; Tomas Fujiwara drums; Mary Halvorson guitar.
Buy Convallaria direct from Cuneiform.