Thumbscrew is the collaborative trio of guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. They have been working together as a unit since roughly 2011, releasing their self-titled debut album in 2014. That was followed by 2016’s Convallaria, and the twin releases Ours and Theirs in 2018. Ours contained all new compositions by the trio; Theirs showcased radical reinterpretations of pieces by Stanley Cowell, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Nichols, Benny Golson and others. In addition to working as a unit, Halvorson, Formanek and Fujiwara anchored the bassist’s Ensemble Kolossus on 2016’s The Distance (reviewed here), the drummer’s 2015 album After All is Said, and both albums by Halvorson’s band Code Girl.
In 2019, Thumbscrew were artists in residence at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, and recorded The Anthony Braxton Project, an album of mostly unreleased compositions by the saxophonist. Braxton’s compositional voice is not as instantly recognizable as Ornette Coleman‘s or Thelonious Monk‘s. He works in too many contexts, from solo pieces to large ensemble pieces to operas, and even went through a phase where members of his ensemble were armed with iPods that allowed them to shuffle through his back catalog and play new music against the old. That said, The Anthony Braxton Project does sound like the work of a single composer, and an extremely influential one at that. The way Halvorson in particular picks through the melodies creates the impression that she’s brand new to Braxton’s work in general (nothing could be further from the truth) and that she’s sight-reading a given piece for the first time (highly unlikely). Formanek and Fujiwara provide a sturdy foundation, though, setting an almost martial rhythm on “Composition No. 274” as she staggers and lurches through the speeding-up-and-slowing-down melody. One piece, “Composition No. 14,” gives the album structure, almost dividing it into acts, as each member tackles it solo — guitar first, then drums, and finally bass. On his version, Fujiwara proves himself a master of melodic drumming, in the tradition of Max Roach, while Formanek breaks the melody down to individual booming notes, seeming to take a breath before each one.
Never is Enough was recorded at the same time as The Anthony Braxton Project, but the nearly year-long space between the two releases eliminates the idea that they might be companion pieces, like Ours and Theirs. In keeping with the group’s collective ethos, each member contributes three of the nine compositions, and it is possible to discern authorial voices. Halvorson’s three — “Sequel to Sadness,” “Heartdrop,” and “Fractured Sanity” — are the most songful, and in the former case even riff-based. “Sequel to Sadness” makes room for an aggressive Fujiwara solo, while “Heartdrop” is a ballad recalling easy-listening 1950s instrumentals; she opts for Jim Hall-esque chords, mostly eschewing her usual delay pedal-induced squiggles. Fujiwara’s composition “Through an Open Window” is driven by a near-backbeat; it starts off unsteady and self-disassembling, but eventually locks in, more or less, riffs and single-note lines unspooling as the drums snap and rattle. Formanek’s pieces have the funniest titles (“Never is Enough,” “Scam Likely,” “Emojis Have Consequences”) and have both space and groove, as might be expected from a bassist. “Emojis…” is one of the album’s most rhythmically driving tracks. Formanek takes a nice solo, Fujiwara another obstreperous one, including plenty of thunder from the toms, but it’s when the band is working together as one that the piece truly coheres into something simultaneously intricate and explosive, like the best progressive rock.
Mary Halvorson has built up an extremely impressive catalog as a leader, and both Fujiwara and Formanek have done great work with various ensembles as well. But the music they make as Thumbscrew is categorically different from anything else they do, and may even appeal to people who’ve never connected with the other stuff.
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