The cooperative trio that merges guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara is named after an instrument of torture. It is a typically sly move from a band that is constantly flirting with the question of whether it is trying to draw listeners in or hold them at a slight distance. On the one hand, Thumbscrew plays with a flowing conversational rhythmic feeling, something that anyone would call “swing”, no matter how many “new jazz” credentials the musicians boast. On the other hand, Thumbscrew puts Halvorson’s postmodern guitar sound front and center, with its offbeat distortions and its delay-pedal, loopy notes. Depending on your point of view, Thumbscrew either makes remarkably accessible weird music or cheeky-quirky straight-ahead jazz.
And if these dualities were not enough, the band has just released a pair of recordings, Ours and Theirs, that presents the music from two different points of view. The first memorializes performances of nine original compositions, three from each band member. The second presents ten covers, mainly from jazz composers such as Wayne Shorter and Benny Golson. The result is a doubling of the band’s recorded output and the best evidence yet that this sweet-and-sour assembly is, in fact, building a crucial body of modern work.
Theirs is the outlier in the band’s work, and it offers listeners a way to hear Thumbscrew with new ears. Because jazz fans know tunes like “Stablemates” and “The Peacocks” so well, the Thumbscrew treatment reveals more than new facets of these standards. The real revelation is the range of the band itself. On the latter tune, Formanek’s acoustic bass and Fujiwara’s bouncing post-bop 4/4 time are beautiful, flexible, pliant, and also somewhat conventional. Halvorson’s guitar is another thing. She plays the known melody with swing and jazz phrasing, but her tone is awash with electronic noise—layers of tones of that bend behind and around the otherwise almost cleanly acoustic sound that she gets from her hollow-body Guild. This is Halvorson’s signature sound, of course, but we are so used to hearing her play knotty new jazz compositions (and, to be blunt, tunes that often do not favor or require traditional swing phrasing) that hearing this postmodern electric guitar play a Golson tune is some kind of revelation. Yeah, man, these Brooklyn newjazzers can play tunes.
Herbie Nichols’ “House Party Starting” has a sly, bluesy start, with Halvorson bend-phrasing some notes and sounding just a bit like Wes Montgomery using octaves on a phrase, but then—ker-plerpt—there is that crazy rebounding effect of tugging at our ear from the new century. Formanek’s bass solo is first out the gate, big-toned and rich, and darn if Halvorson doesn’t comp behind him like she was Bucky Pizzarelli. The ballad “Scarlet Ribbons (for her Hair)” is even more entrancing because the opening for unaccompanied guitar is a delicate figure on which Halvorson’s effects sound perfectly planned to amplify the beauty of the music. As she plays the melody over the rhythm section, we suddenly hear these detuned-sounding squiggles as part of the pretty lace of this old standard.
Repeatedly, the playing on Theirs reminds you how strong—in both traditional ways and in imaginative ways—these players are. Stanley Cowell’s classic skipping waltz, “Effi”, sets the band to playing fast but light, daring them to create airy, cotton candy improvisations, and they soar into the chord changes with a breezy joy, trading phrases back and forth. The Latin tune “Benzinho” requires careful rhythmic placement and artful syncopation, with Formanek playing a busy baseline that sounds like an easily plucked guitar. “The Peacocks” asks melodists to be patient, use space carefully, and to craft phrases with great attention to dynamics, even from note to note. Both Halvorson and Formanek play with utter taste and giant ears as they twirl themselves together. Fujiwara is all nudges and hints, the subtlest of brushwork becoming hypnosis. “Dance Cadaverous” by Wayne Shorter may be the trickiest composition on the collection, but Thumbscrew reimagines it utterly, allowing Fujiwara to take over with a long and brilliant drum solo in the foreground while bass and guitar slowly create their improvisations as a sonic backdrop.
Having been knocked out by the trio’s ability to play across a set of varied jazz standards, you turn to Ours and are reminded that these players are also composers who have absorbed the lessons of history. Halvorson presents three tunes that each sound like interlocking puzzles, with pretty jigsaw pieces that come together and blossom. “Thumbprint” contains the most rhythmic trickery, but its intricacy—with unison figures popping out of nowhere, percussive effects, and quick accelerations of the groove—is all a joy. “Smoketree” is a gentle folk pattern that picks up momentum over time, somewhat reminiscent of how the Mahavishnu Orchestra used to turn around a revolving pattern to gather steam. And her “Snarling Joys” is more the latter than the former, with a swinging 8/8 bass ostinato working perfecting with a catchy melody on guitar.
Formanek’s compositions show great range. “Cruel Heartless Bastards” uses a throbbing bass line that accelerates and decelerates in a deliberate pattern as its irresistible hook, leading to tricky group interplay. “Words That Rhyme with Spangle” uses a rocking pattern as well, with Fujiwara and Halvorson locking in with the bass in a complex way that makes the trio sound twice as big. The improvisation and composition blend into each other beautifully, though by the tune’s center the band is playing with maximum freedom, unleashed, only to come back to heel with restraint. “Unconditional” is a ballad that stays inside its own beauty, and the band is wise enough to play it mostly clean and straight.
Fujiwara’s work here is the most knotty and “out”. “Saturn Way” presents a slightly atonal melody over a tribal (and infectious) groove until the whole endeavor—daringly—dissolves into atmospheric improvisation. “One Day” is a gentle melody for Halvorson’s guitar that patiently wanders across different keys, never quite settling in and never quite letting go into improvisation until Formanek and Fujiwara break free into a rushing solo that moves back into composed counterpoint. “Rising Snow”, more conventionally beautiful at first, shifts between distinct sections: a stuttering groove section, an open section of post-bop, a floating bass solo. A return to the opening theme? Not necessary.
After listening to Ours, I suppose you could ask yourself which Thumbscrew you prefer, the transformative repertoire band or the composers’ collective. But the truth is, in creative improvised music, both elements are part of a whole. The revelation that emerges from the narrative of Theirs/Ours is that this music, no matter how “new”, remains part of a historical continuum, at least in the hands of players at this level. They make the old stuff fresh and invest new material with the knowledge that comes from before they were around. They resolve the question of whether being “original” requires breaking from the past. Rather, it’s a question of transforming tradition, not turning your back on it.
Among these three musicians, it is easy to lean most into your feelings about Halvorson, with her unique tone and primacy in carrying most of the melodies. But the other argument that Thumbscrew makes emphatically is that working ensembles, cooperative bands that find some magic and stick together, are bigger than any one “star” player. Thumbscrew is one of those bands. A pleasure despite its name. Just as was intended.