Personnel: Tomas Fujiwara (drums); Michael Formanek (double bass); Mary Halvorson (guitar).
Audio Mixer: Jon Rosenberg.
Recording information: The Bunker, Brooklyn, NY (04/07/2013).
Photographer: Peter Gannushkin.
The name of this avant guitar-bass-drums trio might suggest a small object capable of inflicting agonizing pain, but never fear, Thumbscrew take you only a relatively short distance beyond the creative jazz comfort zone. Expect some mild abrasions, but also the sharp focus of skilled improvisers who happen to be fine composers as well. Bassist Michael Formanek has roughly two decades of recording experience beyond that of bandmates guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, but once the three musicians start playing together, banish any thoughts of a generational divide. The composing is divvied up equally among the threesome on this truly collaborative outfit's eponymous 2014 Cuneiform label debut: nine tracks in total, three each by Formanek, Halvorson, and Fujiwara. The three artists forge a singular band identity on Thumbscrew, with no individual taking over the reins. The album's first track, Fujiwara's "Cheap Knock Off," was reportedly inspired by Formanek's ECM label quartet; the theme's spiky bass and guitar lines intersect in skewed rhythmic permutations akin to the contrapuntal darting and weaving of Formanek and saxophonist Tim Berne, but with Halvorson serving as Formanek's foil here, "Cheap Knock Off" is a far different animal with its own distinctive Thumbscrew style.
As the album progresses, Halvorson skips from clear single-note runs and advanced chord voicings to reverb-laden tremolo, gravelly distortion, and pitch-bending effects produced with her Line 6 delay pedal. The guitarist is central to Thumbscrew's sound, yet the album's mix doesn't play favorites among the three equally present bandmembers -- another clear indication of the group's collaborative bent -- with Halvorson restraining her volume even when soloing, the decay of Fujiwara's prominent cymbals bleeding across his bandmates' angularities, and Formanek sliding effortlessly from melodic to anchoring roles, his bass timbre providing the album's largest measure of organic warmth. The simple but memorable theme in Halvorson's eight-plus-minute "Fluid Hills in Pink" is first articulated through Formanek's deep woody resonance before he hands the melody back to the composer for her own harmonic investigation. Later, a probing bass-drums free improv leads into an extended full-trio interlude highlighted by the guitarist's swooping pitch manipulations, before the proceedings are pulled into line by a segue into the marching cadence of Fujiwara's "Nothing Doing," a minute-and-a-half track that finds Halvorson and Formanek bursting into post-grunge-metal mode and the trio locking into a furious stop-on-a-dime unison finale. A pair of Formanek numbers -- and album highlights -- give Halvorson more chances to dirty up her sound: "Still...Doesn't Swing" marries that patented Formanek-Berne-ish spikiness to a full-on rock chordal bridge (and features some of Halvorson's hardest picking on the album), and the guitarist stretches out with a blistering extended solo on "Buzzard's Breath," a rough jazz-rock jammer that might even remind some Cuneiform listeners of an old Matching Mole instrumental. At moments like this, Peabody jazz faculty member Formanek clearly displays his pleasure in rocking out off-campus -- particularly when musicians like Halvorson and Fujiwara can join him for the ride. ~ Dave Lynch