The group Thumbscrew was formed in a sort of Dickensian coincidence when Michael Formanek was called in to substitute for an absent bassist in a trio that included guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. But nothing happens by accident, even one as happy as this. Some things are just meant to be and if this sounds like some philosophical gobbledegook, it was not meant to. Thumbscrew – as the group is called – have released just two albums together and they already sound as if the musical bond was prehistoric, in the nicest sense of the work. On current form, with evidence from live and studio performances this trio is, quite simply, the most inventive of its kind. If you took the tonal palette which ripples with a passacaglia of colours it would seem that the sonic exuberance is a pageant of notes and lines that bounce off guitarist, to bassist and drummer, then back again in a ceaseless refraction music.
Mary Halvorson practices a calculated deception in which she suggests comedic intent only to round lines off with lightness and ardour and a serious sense of swing. She sometimes plays things slowly, way below perceptual metronomic indications, but in the final minutes of her solo excursions, creates an atmosphere of rapt concentration. In addition to her witty, sardonic melisma she can also be sensitive and refined. Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara do not seem to stick with written tempo either, preferring to circle around a given pulse in a characterful, refreshing manner. They play their parts quietly, meticulously and are all about the sonority of the music beyond their anchoring roles. Both bassist and drummer embody an emotional involvement through rhythmic flexibility, mostly sonorous tone while Halvorson’s sleight of hand contributes in weight, articulacy and dynamic nuance.
Heard on Convallaria is music that is sometimes airy, almost reflective. The musicians make everything enthrallingly fresh and unfamiliar. Indeed you will hear eleven tracks for the first time; such is the newness of the recording. But if you are led to believe that everything is plausibly refined, perish the thought immediately. ‘Screaming Piha’ is just one of those pieces that are backed by savage technical and emotional voltage. Halvorson, with ululating, gurgling and twangy strings leads an ever enthusiastic bassist and drummer with such brilliant fury that the music seems to ignite almost instantaneously. Formanek’s darkly rumbling bass is every match for the guitarist and although Fujiwara might seem reticent more often than not, he is just as likely to combust at very short notice.
With just two recordings under their collective belt, here are musicians who can pin you back by the ears with heroic strength and propulsion, but who are no less subtle and insinuating when it comes to losing themselves in musical reverie and introspection. Can any lover of contemporary – composed or improvised – music, or anyone else afford to be without this disc? I think not.
Track List: Cleome; Barn Fire Slum Brew; Samsponian Rhythms; Trigger; Screaming Piha; Convallaria; Tail of the Sad Dog; The Cardinal and the Weathervane; Dance Insensé; Spring Ahead; Inevitable.
Personnel: Mary Halvorson: guitar; Michael Formanek: double bass; Tomas Fujiwara: drums.
Label: Cuneiform Records
Release date: May 2016
Running time: 1:13:05