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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Two from Thumbscrew

By Troy Dostert

It’s always a delight to hear a new release from Thumbscrew, the “supertrio” comprised of guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. In this case, there are two additional reasons for celebration. First, it’s a double release for the group, with Ours presenting nine pieces of the band’s own material, while Theirs is an idiosyncratic collection of covers; and second, the release represents the return of Cuneiform Records, a vital label for creative music that went on a brief hiatus for the first half of 2018 to retool for the future.

Thumbscrew – Ours (Cuneiform, 2018) ****


Much of the value in hearing these three musicians as a trio is that it puts the emphasis squarely on their identities as musicians rather than as composers. Lately all three have been utilizing larger ensembles as a vehicle to showcase their compositions: Halvorson’s septet and octet releases (2013’s Illusionary Sea and 2016’s Away With You, respectively) have demonstrated the multihued complexity of her role as a writer, and this year’s Code Girl is no different, as even her quintet on that record sounds like a much bigger band, with diverse textures and harmonic intricacies galore. Meanwhile, Fujiwara’s Triple Double, one of 2017’s highlights, was a similar effort to try out a wider range of instrumental voices and compositional strategies; and the name of Formanek’s own Ensemble Kolossus speaks for itself when it comes to the large-scale impact of his own ambitious vision. It’s nice, then, to be reminded of what these three exceptional musicians can do with a somewhat smaller canvas.

Ours gets off to a thrilling start with “Snarling Joys,” a trademark Halvorson composition built around an insinuating melody that both Formanek and Halvorson toy with throughout the piece, while Fujiwara’s crisp snare work drives the track irresistibly. Halvorson is in superb form here, with precise, fast-paced lines and her characteristically oblique refractions. Fujiwara’s “Saturn Way” relies a bit more on indirection, with a less immediately obvious melody and more room for space and indeterminacy to emerge, especially with Formanek’s arco in dialogue with Halvorson’s abstract musings. Then Formanek’s “Cruel Heartless Bastards” takes things down a rock-inflected path, with some hard-hitting chords and a churning beat that pivots between different meters. It’s quite a burst of creativity for the first three cuts, and yet while each piece has a dramatically different character, they all possess the commonality that makes these songs immediately recognizable as Thumbscrew; the collective identity of the trio is always firmly in place.

The rest of the album provides similarly interesting moments, whether on “Smoketree,” a charming folk-like melody that takes an ominous turn, or “Words that Rhyme with Spangle,” a relentless, free-ranging piece that somehow stays together despite its rhythmic and thematic complexity. What makes each of the tracks so riveting is the sense of surprise that enlivens each of them: the trio can and will turn on a dime to head off in a completely different, yet logically plausible, direction. Nowhere is this more evident than on Halvorson’s “Thumbprint,” where a loping, seemingly innocuous figure eventually opens into a semi-martial cadence under Fujiwara’s guidance, and Formanek’s nimble interjections take the energy to another level altogether, eventually blazing a trail into the unknown with rapid-fire phrases that spool out in dizzying intensity.

With nine pieces filled with intrigue and complexity, and the trio’s near-telepathic rapport, Ours is perfect in giving these three ambitious musicians a chance to scale things down. The intimacy allowed by the trio format showcases the close connection they have forged in years of working together.


Thumbscrew – Theirs (Cuneiform, 2018) ***½


Perhaps it isn’t fair to evaluate Theirs alongside its companion album, as Ours is so strong that it sets an unrealistically high bar to clear, particularly since this isn’t a trio that has specialized in playing covers. But even so, it’s a tantalizing glimpse at how the Thumbscrew logic can be applied to an interesting mix of other material. With songs ranging from jazz staples (Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun,” Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous”) to more unusual choices (Evelyn Danzig’s “Scarlet Ribbons,” Julio De Caro’s “Buen Amigo”), the trio proves that nothing’s off-limits. From the first few notes of Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” the album’s opener, Halvorson’s heavily-processed guitar lets the listener know right away that this won’t be a repertory endeavor. There’s substantial creativity here, whether through Halvorson’s swerves, Formanek’s careful balancing of swing and freedom, or Fujiwara’s restless inventiveness.

Yet when the trio performs “Benzinho,” Brazilian songwriter Jacob do Bandolim’s infectious choro tune, the group stays perhaps too true to the original to allow its idiosyncrasies to come fully to the fore. Sure, Halvorson’s solo is engaging, with all those Halvorsonian bent notes—there’s no mistaking who’s playing here. But Formanek and Fujiwara play it relatively straight, leaving one to wonder how things might go if they opened the piece to the kind of creative detours found in such abundance on Ours. The same goes for “Scarlet Ribbons”: the reverence the group displays for the tune is laudable, but there’s not quite enough “there” there to justify many repeated listenings. The running length of the tunes on Theirs also tends to be briefer, suggesting that the trio wasn’t always sure they wanted to release the shackles and take more chances. Meatier fare like Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous,” on the other hand, are much more in the group’s wheelhouse, as Shorter’s own oblique vision dovetails much more compatibly with the trio’s own disposition. Here the sense of open-ended mystery possessed by the original is articulated enticingly, and it’s a powerful display of improvisatory prowess. Perhaps more unexpectedly, the same goes for “East of the Sun,” which has all the off-kilter craftiness we associate with these three musicians, with only the barest hint of the melody emerging fleetingly amidst a creative maelstrom. But those are the exception to the rule, as otherwise even strong material like Herbie Nichols’s “House Party Starting” tends to be governed by a relatively staid sensibility. And while the trio never mails it in—these are always engaged and focused treatments, with fine musicianship—one can be forgiven, perhaps, for wanting to hear a bit more of the group’s unique “stamp” on them.

It’s worth emphasizing that while most readers of this blog will find Ours the more valuable of the two releases, both are worth having. Even Theirs, although it feels more like a tentative path than an arrived-at destination, points the way toward possibilities the group may pursue even more convincingly down the road in investigating classic repertoire with its hallmark cleverness and intrepid spirit of adventure.

3 comments:

Captain Hate said...

I picked up both of these at a club they played last Wednesday and have listened exclusively to "Ours" since then. Frankly I think it marks a major step up from their two earlier releases which left me lukewarm and seemed to be just three musicians who I like playing together without much synergy. Maybe I should revisit them but I doubt it will change things because Ours grabbed me from the first note which I never felt in the previous ones. It's funny what you mentioned about "House Party Starting" because while I was listening to them perform it I was thinking they hadn't reconfigured it into something unique nearly enough.

I had heard that this marked the return of Cuneiform after a brief hiatus. Not sure how these will ultimately alter things for the label but of course I wish them well.

MJG said...

"which left me lukewarm and seemed to be just three musicians who I like playing together without much synergy" interesting, that was pretty close to my response too. I really wanted to like them but they lacked a spark for me. They also went on a bit too long. So now I'm a bit more intrigued by the new ones following Capt Hate's response above, maybe I'll try them for size after all

Craig Premo said...

Make that at least 3 people who didn't warm to their earlier releases. I agree with the Captain that Ours and Theirs are a step forward. I like both, although as the reviewer stated I wish they had stretched out more on the covers. Also, for the first time in listening to Ms. Halvorson, some of her note bending on Theirs sounds a little gimmicky, and not an organic result of her approach.