The Upshot: Developed simultaneously during a residency in Pittsburgh, these two records represent a creative explosion on the avant-jazz trio’s part.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Guitarist Mary Halvorson has already released one album so far this year, but that’s clearly not enough. Not when she can do two more, out the same day, with her band Thumbscrew. Comprised of Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew has been putting its distinctive spin on the jazz trio concept for the past half a decade, to excellent effect on these third and fourth albums. As might be guessed from the titles, there are practical differences between the LPs – Ours features originals by each member, while Theirs presents the trio’s unique takes on various standards and obscurities.
Anyone who’s heard any of the principals’ work under their own names will know what to expect here – compositions and arrangements that push the envelope of acceptable jazz behavior without quite crossing over into free/avant garde territory. Fujiwara is a free roving percussionist, as apt to play around the beat as on it, encouraging everyone to explore the musical territory instead of going from point A to point B. Halvorson gives free reign to her unique style, sounding like she’s jamming along with a melody that only she can hear. She occasionally uses effects, especially a watery digital delay, but she mostly allows her thin, semi-acoustic tone to rule. A veteran bandleader and formidable composer in his own right, Formanek grounds the performances with his round tone and easy swing, but he colors outside the lines when appropriate.
It’s Formanek’s pieces that tend to stand out on Ours – the perfect balance of melody and experimentation on “Cruel Heartless Bastards” and “Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle)” gives everyone room to rumble and the listener a tune to grasp, while “Unconditional” brings the record to a close with its most beautiful song. That’s not to say Fujiwara and Halvorson slack in the writing arena – the former’s “One Day” moves from ballad (of sorts) to blazer so subtly it’s sublime, while the latter’s “Snarling Joys” playfully kicks off the record with a near-perfect statement of the band’s intent. There’s a sense of whimsy behind the performances, especially Halvorson’s, a sense of serious chops being used for lighthearted effect. That doesn’t stop any of the musicians from getting down to business when it’s time to do so.
Theirs is, if anything, even more mischievous than Ours, as the trio clearly enjoys taking songs like Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous,” Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” and Jacob Do Bandolin’s “Benzinho” apart and putting them back together again. There’s no malice in these adventurous arrangements, however – these players treat each part of a tune with respect, if not exactly reverence. They’re simply trying to make each piece their own, while still retaining the spirit of the original, whether that’s the trio’s exploratory arrangement (of Johnny Smith’s arrangement) of Evelyn Danzig’s “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)” or a straightforward swinging take on Stanley Cowell’s “Effi.” An easier place to begin for Thumbscrew neophytes, Theirs is more accessible than its sister collection of original material, though perhaps not quite as daring.
Developed simultaneously during a residency in Pittsburgh, the two records represent a creative explosion on Thumbscrew’s part. Each record is a fine an example of the artistic combustion inherent in a gathering of especially creative people as you’re likely to find this year.
DOWNLOAD: Ours: “Words That Rhyme With Spangle,” “Cruel, Heartless Bastards,” “Snarling Joys” / Theirs: “Benzinho,” “The Peacocks,” “Scarlet Ribbons”