Thumbscrew – the trio of guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara – are giants at the particular kind of weird they do individually, but they’re practically mythological titans when united together. For the last four years, this trio has been a total trip, bending notes and playing with abstractions while holding onto a certain snap that brings it all together. Before this and in the midst of this period, the three have worked on one another’s individual works as well. Now, for the first new albums on a reworked Cuneiform Records, Thumbscrew is back with two albums — one of original compositions appropriately titled Ours and an album of covers thusly titled Theirs — which release this Friday, June 8th.
Halvorson’s distinct tone continues to ring clear as it turns corners, corners that Tomas Fujiwara’s drumming is all too happy to provide. All the while, Formanek is killing it on the bass, with clear, expressive phrasing that says something (and quite prominently) as opposed to functioning as the anchor in the midst of the storm. It’s a vibe the three easily made in their 2017 residency in Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, finding inspiration in the community and among themselves. Through this time, these respective albums’ ideas could germinate their ideas into these woozy creations.
Ours continues to prove the brilliance these three can create together in their own compositions, their own ideas, and their own direction. What Formanek’s composition, “Cruel Heartless Bastards”, grows into, not quite like a crescendo but it definitely creeps up into a swelling that groans like some beast awoken from its slumber. Fujiwara’s “One Day” softly and sweetly floats along while still being remarkably tense, like taut razor wire laying in wait like a trap. Ours‘ closer, “Unconditional”, vibes like a drunken ballad that couldn’t be more perfect if it took your keys and called you a Lyft home.
Alternatively, Theirs is a collection of arrangements that never fail to surprise, especially considering how surprising this group is naturally on their own without the added notion of subverting expectations on known tunes or teaching the listener about their wide palate. Hearing them adhere to a closer compositional structure gives them the added challenge of additional parameters around which to work but through which to marvel us even more. I didn’t know I needed this version of Benny Golson’s “Stablemates”, with Halvorson’s guitar warped, ever so slightly off sound as if she’s playing her instrument like Thelonious Monk but, y’know, for guitar. Fujiwara’s solo on Herbie Nichols’ “House Party Starting” is just a treat, like a freshly baked cookie that crumbles just the right way. Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” is jarringly direct for much of the way through, highlighting just how sweet this song is and what the wonder of a soft touch can do (particularly with Fujiwara playing with brushes). “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)” by Evelyn Danzig is so sweet a song, these three could practically float into the clouds (Fujiwara’s gentle drumming is the engine, Formanek’s solid bassline is the rudder, Halvorson is the wind that propels this musical dirigible, of course).
Delving into one Thumbscrew album is already a weird, delightful treat, which is why having this trio (and this label, for that matter) come back with two solid works is a blessing. Ours and Theirs reveal different sides of this group– we’ve always seen them as fantastic musicians and composers, but here we see them more fully with this added range. They can do anything they want to do and more importantly, they want to do it together.
Ours and Theirs, the two new albums from Thumbscrew, are out this Friday, June 8th on Cuneiform Records.
Michael Formanek – bass
Tomas Fujiwara – drums
Mary Halvorson – guitar
Also, they’ll be gigging a bunch this summer. Check them out if they’re coming your way!
June 14th @ SF Jazz (san Francisco, CA) double bill with Julian Lage Trio
June 16th @ Gold Lion Arts (Sacramento, CA)
June 18th @ Kuumbwa Jazz (Santa Cruz, CA)
June 20th @ PDX Jazz (Portland, OR)
June 21st @ Earshot (Seattle, WA)
June 22nd @ Vancouver Jazz Festival (Vancouver, CA)
June 23rd @ Skin and Bones (Kelowna, BC)
June 27th @ Bop Stop at the Music Settlement (Cleveland, OH)
June 28th @ Ziggy’s (Ypsilanti, MI)
June 29th & 30th @ City of Asylum (Pittsburgh, PA)
July 17-22, 2018: The Village Vanguard NYC
August 15- 24th: Argentina and Brazil Tour
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.