Thumbscrew: A Decade of ‘Extraordinary Group-Think’

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Thumbscrew is, from left, Mary Halvorson, Tomas Fujiwara and Michael Formanek.

(Photo: Brian Cohen)

Through countless gigs and seven studio recordings over the past 10 years, the members of the cooperative trio Thumbscrew — bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara — have hit on a formula that balances strictly composed, intricately arranged and finely articulated material with blistering, unbridled improvisation that often tips into the skronk/sonic-shrapnel zone.

Call it avant garde, new music or just wildly idiosyncratic, it’s a collective dance based on trust and fueled by an extraordinary group-think these kindred spirits have forged over time. As Formanek acknowledged, “A lot of things don’t have to be talked about much at all.”

The group’s 2014 self-titled debut on Cuneiform Records set the template for reacting in the moment while reading down extremely challenging charts. The trio followed with 2016’s Convallaria, then addressed an aspect of dualism with two simultaneous releases in 2018: Ours (all original compositions) and Theirs (all covers of other jazz composers). Subsequent recordings, 2020’s The Anthony Braxton Project and 2021’s Never Is Enough, continued raising the bar on improvisational daring within structure.

The group’s latest release, Multicolored Midnight (Cuneiform), incorporates some new hues into the band chemistry, courtesy of drummer Fujiwara’s contributions on vibraphone, which allow for vivid unison and harmony lines alongside Halvorson’s guitar on three tunes for vibes-guitar-bass trio. “Vibes, in the context of Thumbscrew, first came up when we were working on The Anthony Braxton Project album as a way of widening our palette and bringing as many sonic possibilities as we could to that recording,” Fujiwara explained. “I’ve always loved playing the vibes, so it was a perfect opportunity to focus on that more. As a composer, I find the vibraphone really speaks to me in a way that the piano doesn’t. I hear harmony much more clearly and much more creatively on vibes than I might on the piano. So getting to write not only on the vibes but for the vibes on Multicolored Midnight was really fun. And because I know both Mary and Michael so well as composers, it was also great to interpret and play their compositions from the vibraphone chair as opposed to the drum chair.”

“Having the vibes is nice because it gives us the option of having three melodic voices,” Halvorson added. “It just gives another color and also takes it out of the guitar-bass-drums thing for a while, just for contrast.” Halvorson’s “Swirling Lives” and Formanek’s “Shit Changes” find Fujiwara navigating the intricate heads with aplomb while his own spacious soundscape, “Future Reruns And Nostalgia,” has him exploring on the vibes in an atmospheric rubato setting against Formanek’s bowed harmonics and Halvorson’s percussive picking before the piece segues to chamber-like precision.

Elsewhere, Fujiwara addresses his own jazz drumming roots on “Song For Mr. Humphries,” dedicated to Pittsburgh drumming legend Roger Humphries, who played on the Horace Silver Quintet’s classic 1964 Blue Note album Song For My Father. While the tribute may carry the angular, wide intervallic lines favored by Halvorson and her mentor Anthony Braxton, there are moments of old-school tipping on the ride cymbal that connect directly to a lineage of swing. That quality was also apparent on Theirs, which included takes on Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” Herbie Nichols’ “House Party Starting” and Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous” as well as a radical deconstruction of the standard “East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon.”

“That music, that lineage and all those heroes are very important to us,” Fujiwara said. “They’re not influences that we’re trying to run away from or subvert. Swinging is never something that we’re shying away from, if that’s what the music calls for, if that’s what we feel in the moment. We want that to be a part of our music, but we do it through our own personal lens.”

The band members met Humphries in 2015 during Thumbscrew’s first residency at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, a local arts organization where they have workshopped material for their last six albums.

“I don’t want to write a song in tribute to the great Roger Humphries that just sounds like some tune that he would write or he would play on,” Fujiwara said. “I want it to be something personal that I’m offering to him as a tribute and as a thank you for the inspiration and the time that I’ve been able to spend with him, which has been really priceless to me. I think that kind of speaks to how we as individuals, and we as a group, kind of deal with our influences and our heroes. We don’t run away from them, we embrace them.”

Fujiwara still connects with the elder statesman on Thumbscrew’s regular visits to Pittsburgh. “Every time we do a City of Asylum residency, I reach out to Roger and definitely go hear him play. I also had the opportunity to go over to his house a couple of times. It was very casual and very informal, but really meaningful to me to get to spend that time with him. It’s always super-inspiring to see him play, and he always has some really illuminating perspectives and information about the music, in general, and drumming, in particular.”

Multicolored Midnight was the sixth Thumbscrew album developed during the trio’s City of Asylum residency. For each, the trio has lived in separate housing, written individually, then developed and refined the compositions together.

“We would get together every day from 11 to 3, pretty much like going to work, and rehearse the music,” Formanek said. “It was more a matter of bringing in composed music and then fine-tuning it with everyone having input. And we’ve maintained that approach the whole time. The only exceptions are when we did Theirs, which was other people’s music, and when we did the Braxton record, which was all Anthony’s compositions.”

Added Halvorson, “We don’t work on the music at all until we get to City of Asylum because we know we’re going to have a concentrated period to work on it every day. Most musicians, especially musicians living in New York, aren’t used to rehearsing that much. It’s so hard to get people together because everyone’s always so busy. I remember telling one friend about our City of Asylum residency, and he was like, ‘You’re rehearsing every day for three weeks?’ like it was such a foreign concept to have that much concentrated time.”

Formanek, Thumbscrew’s elder statesman, came up in the San Francisco Bay Area playing sideman to saxophone great Joe Henderson and drumming legend Tony Williams. After moving to New York, he played with Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Fred Hersch and Atilla Zoller, among others, before diverting into more outre realms. A key trigger for that direction was playing in alto saxophonist/composer Tim Berne’s band Bloodcount (with saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed and drummer Jim Black).

“Around the time of my first album [1992’s Wide Open Spaces on Enja Records], I was studying composition and was interested in writing for strings and developing a more contrapuntal sense of music, experimenting with less purely harmonic forms and things like that. And when Tim joined my band, it kind of opened things up even more. We had a rapport right away and started to develop other ways of playing together.”

Formanek was already anchoring the Mingus Big Band during the group’s Thursday night residency at Fez under the Time Cafe when he began playing in Bloodcount. “I had to stop doing the Mingus gig because we were going on tour with Bloodcount, and I was much more into doing that as a main focus, so there was no question for me,” he recalled. “Bloodcount was the first band I’d ever been in where I could really do what I wanted all the time, and I took that responsibility very seriously. But I also think I pushed it way past the point of good taste many times. I would play long, insane bass solos, and I just had so much freedom in that group. Bloodcount was loud and kind of skronky but it still had a lot of through-composed elements, and I definitely borrowed a lot of things from Tim during that period, ways of putting things together and developing them.”

Formanek, Halvorson and Fujiwara first played together in 2011 when Formanek subbed for bassist Ken Filiano in Taylor Ho Bynum’s sextet. As he recalled of their first meeting, “I had met Mary a couple of times, and I was a fan of some of her recordings up to that point. When I got called to sub on that gig, there was a point in the music where the three of us had a trio improv. So we played, and we immediately had this thing together. And when it ended, we all just kind of looked at each other like, ‘Wow, we should do that again!’ And unlike every other time that happens, we actually followed through with it.”

“Pretty quickly, it gained its own momentum,” Halvorson added. “We started writing music, we booked a couple gigs, we made some recordings, and then 10 years flew by.”

They played their first gig as Thumbscrew on March 11, 2012, and recorded their debut on April 7, 2013, at The Bunker in Brooklyn, where they also recorded Multicolored Midnight.

Since the trio’s inception, Halvorson has emerged as one of the most singular voices in jazz guitar. Playing her 1970 Guild Artist Award archtop, she gets a beautiful acoustic sound. With her trusty Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler with built-in expression pedal for radical pitch-shifting, echo, stereo delays and looping, she can create a kaleidoscope of sounds — like fireworks spiraling off of each note she picks (a quality that Taylor Ho Bynum once described as “Jim Hall on acid”).

“I’ve always been interested in that duality of having a big archtop guitar with a really clean acoustic sound where you can hear the wood of the instrument and the attack and the picking, so there’s a very physical element to the guitar itself,” she said. “But then I also really like messing with that by having the pedals. It’s part of the fun of electric guitar. And I kind of like the idea that those two things can exist simultaneously.”

“Mary’s like any other excellent musician I know who just spends a lot of time working on the basics — chords, melody, harmony, tunes,” said Formanek. “But she’s also developed a very individual voice with effects pedals. Sometimes it sounds wacky because these notes sort of boomerang from out of nowhere, but she’s got such great improvisational instincts and I really appreciate that about her.

“Sometimes I think about what she’s doing in visual terms,” he continued. “It’s like a beautiful picture, but then there’s all these sparks flying out of it with these incredible colors. And there’s no reason why those things can’t coexist.”

While Formanek’s big, woody tone on upright bass has been a constant, he used effects pedals himself for the first time on “Fidgety” from Multicolored Midnight.

“During the pandemic I was at home working on stuff all the time, and I just started to try different things. And I found that the pedals — and this is definitely influenced by Mary — would give me a lot of options to be able to sustain a note and do things with it, like reverse and ring modulator effects. It’s just something that I find interesting, but for very specific types of things. And it’s really fun.”

As for the band’s evolution, Fujiwara noted, “In terms of process, everything has actually stayed pretty much the same since day one. We each compose music specifically for this trio. We compose separately, so we bring in charts that are basically finished, and we play through them together. And each time we play through a composition, we realize different options and remain open to different places we can go with it.”

“You can’t really analyze it too much,” Formanek added. “At this point, I have endless amounts of musical trust in both Mary and Tomas because I know that no matter what happens we always find a way back.”

“I always say, the longer you play with a band you get looser and tighter at the same time,” said Halvorson. “You get tighter just from constantly playing together, but you also develop a lot of trust, so you can take more risks. So I always know if we ever make a mistake or things go totally haywire, it doesn’t even matter because we all just find each other somehow. That element of trust frees you up to be able to experiment more and that kind of thing happens the longer you have a history with a band.”

“Everyone’s committed to keeping it going, finding opportunities for us to play and work on our music and record it,” said Fujiwara. DB



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