Code Girl, Thumbscrew and the Empathy of Listening

Michael Formanek (left), Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara are Thumbscrew.

Mary Halvorson may be the closest thing avant-garde jazz has to a guitar hero. Not yet 40, she’s already been hailed as a visionary on her instrument, contributing glowing improvisations and sharp-edged counterpoint to ensembles led by John Zorn, Anthony Braxton and other stalwarts of the genre. As a bandleader, she maintains a similarly high profile, seeming to front a riveting new ensemble with every change of season. But her ripple of influence can be felt far beyond the stage or recording studio. Halvorson is also a passionate educator – she teaches a course in ensemble improvisation at the New School in New York City – and a role model at a time when female-fronted jazz ensembles are still, unfortunately, quite rare.

Considering her collective efforts as a performer and teacher, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that she has helped to reshape the vocabulary of modern jazz guitar. If you listen closely enough, you’ll find Halvorson’s own unique way of playing – sinewy yet harmonically compact, biting yet serene – in the style of so many of today’s young improvisers. And though she and her trademark sound seem to be everywhere these days, she continues to find ways to break new ground.

Her latest project is the quintet Code Girl, featuring collaborators Tomas Fujiwara (drums), Michael Formanek (bass), Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) and Amirtha Kidambi (vocals). In March they released a self-titled album to wide acclaim. Though Halvorson has worked with singers in the past – most notably in her avant-rock band, People, and later with violinist Jessica Pavone — this latest project nonetheless represents a departure: It is the first for which she wrote all of the lyrics.

On May 24, Code Girl (sans Akinmusire but featuring the talented young trumpeter Adam O’Farrill) performed at Vision Fest, Brooklyn’s long-running celebration of left-of-center jazz. Their set was a thrilling mix of elastic grooves, knotty melodies, poetic observations and rangy free improvisations. Individual contributions – from Kidambi’s plaintive vocals and O’Farrill’s raspy, warm-throated trumpet – were discernable through the swirl and impressive in their own right. But at the heart of this performance was an unshakable sense of cohesion. That’s largely due to the simpatico of the group’s rhythm team of Halvorson, Formanek and Fujiwara, who together make up the trio Thumbscrew.

A collective in every sense of the word, Thumbscrew has a long history of rattling the jazz tradition from the inside. They continue to push boundaries in new and exciting ways, and on June 8, the band will release two separate but conceptually linked albums on the Cuneiform label: Ours and Theirs. Ours is a collection of original tunes written by the band members. Theirs, meanwhile, consists of material written by other composers affiliated with – and adjacent to – the jazz tradition, including Benny Golson (“Stablemates”), Wayne Shorter (“Dance Cadaverous”) and Herbie Nichols (“House Party Starting”). The two albums are the first projects released by Cuneiform since returning from a brief hiatus earlier this year.

JAZZIZ caught up with Halvorson, Formanek and Fujiwara after their performance with Code Girl at Vision Fest. In a wide-ranging roundtable discussion, the trio members discussed the challenges – and joys – of creating and listening to new music. Below are excerpts.

JAZZIZ: It was a pleasure to hear those songs. Thanks for coming to Vision Fest. Mary, you’ve written lyrics before, correct?

Halvorson: Only a little bit.

And that was with your metal band, People?

Halvorson: Uh, I don’t know if you would call it metal (laughs). It was sort of like a — I actually don’t know what it was, some kind of a rock project where I sang. But actually, most of the lyrics in that band were by the drummer, Kevin Shea. I only right maybe two songs’ worth of lyrics for that project. I’ve written lyrics a little bit for my duo project with Jessica Pavone, which had very occasional singing. So it’s something I’ve kind of done for fun occasionally, but Code Girl is the first time I set out to write a book of lyrics.

Did you find that it was a challenge? Or was it kind of liberating?

Halvorson: I guess it was both. It was definitely a challenge. But it was also a lot of fun. The best thing I can I equate it to is when you don’t play drums and somebody puts a drumset in front of you. You’re just bashing away and having a good time. That’s sort of what this felt like, because I didn’t have any hangups, any “should haves.” I didn’t study poetry, so it was kind of wide open. It was just a new creative outlet. I spent a lot of time revising things, because it was all pretty new. But then setting the words to music was also – that’s something I’ve done a lot and something I really enjoy doing. So that part of it was fun.

Did the lyrics always come first?

Halvorson: Always first. I like to fit music around lyrics, so that if the lyrics are irregular, the music might be irregular too. And also so that the lyrics can inform the mood of the piece that I’m writing, rather than writing music and then trying to fit some lyrics into it. That, to me, feels counterintuitive, even though I’m sure a lot of people do it that way and have success with it.

You mentioned that you didn’t study poetry. But were there other influences you turned to for inspiration with your lyrics?

Halvorson: There are a lot of songwriters that I really enjoy lyrically, although I don’t feel like my style is similar to theirs, necessarily. You know, people like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Robert Wyatt was a big figure for me, lyrically and as a songwriter. Elliott Smith has been a recent fixation, and Fiona Apple. I don’t know if those people informed my lyric writing as much as I enjoyed their songwriting and their approach to writing songs.

With a lot of musicians, the conventional wisdom is that you have to make adjustments while playing with a vocalist. But I feel like there’s a lot of equality in this group, that everyone is on equal footing. What adjustments, if any, did you have to make for playing with Amirtha?

Formanek: I’ve worked with a lot of vocalists, but this is an unusual situation, because the vast majority of the time I’ve worked with vocalists it’s been their group. I’m hired to work with them and fulfill whatever idea they have. It’s not that I don’t try to support Amirtha and what she does musically, but I’d do the same as I would with anyone else in the group, and it’s still ultimately Mary’s music, so that’s kind of the way I approach it. [Amirtha] is another instrument, or another instrumentalist in the group, and obviously what she does has meaning in a way that what we do – playing music – does not. She has some direct kind of messages to convey. So it’s also important that people can hear what she’s doing, and that we’re not cluttering up what she’s singing.

Fujiwara: I try to treat them as equal musicians, so I make the same choices in terms of using my ears to try to shape the song, shape the improvisation. Some vocalists might want to be a little more coddled, or pandered to, but I’m not really the drummer to do that. And Amirtha’s great. I just consider her a musician on equal footing as everyone else in the band. I make my decisions based on the same aesthetic things that are important to me regardless of whether it’s vocals or Mary and Michael or trumpet or whatever.

Mary, did you have Amirtha in mind when writing the songs, or did you approach only after the songs were written?

Halvorson: I had her in mind when writing the songs. I had all these guys in mind when I was writing, so I kind of came up with the idea for the project, approached everyone about it to see if they were interested, and then I wrote all the music. When I was writing, I was thinking about her voice. I was thinking about her range, what she does. And the same thing with everyone else in the band. It’s easier for me to write that way. When you know who you’re writing for, it makes it easier to imagine the music, and that can become an inspiring part of the composition process.

This music features an interesting combination of complex lyrics and complex melodies. Did you ever fear that, for listeners, one or the other would get lost?

Halvorson: I guess that became the challenge in the writing of the music. But I also don’t mind if you can’t understand every word. That’s why I have a lyric booklet in the CD. I want it to be heard, it was a conscious choice to be a little more mysterious in parts. It definitely isn’t a vocals on top kind of record. My intention was to have all the instruments blended more equally, which also means things might be a little buried at times. But I’m OK with that as long as the overall intention comes across.

Mary, I’ve read that you incorporate jazz standards into your practice repertoire. Michael, I know you come from a background where you played with Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz. Tomas, you have some experience working in funk and world music. You were in the pit for the musical Fela! How do these more “formal” styles influence your free playing?

Fujiwara: I don’t really draw a distinction between the two. They both kind of inform my approach to playing music and being creative. There are always elements of swing rhythms and other types of rhythms and different tonalities and harmonies in my music. It’s just kind of information and experiences. You bring those along to each musical experience. I can’t say that I compartmentalize things.

Formanek: The only difference for me, in most cases, is that one approach deals with a preset idea and form structure, and one doesn’t. And there’s everything in between. You can look at it like a continuum: one side being completely unstructured, the other side being completely structured. We play music that’s all over that line. So just because we’re playing something that’s not written or pre-determined, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have time or harmony or other elements of structure and melody. I do think this is a nature of where we are in music right now, that most of the young musicians that I know are very comfortable with that fluidity of being able to move through those ideas.

Fujiwara: The Theirs album is, for us, a perfect example. There are these classic recordings of a lot of these pieces that we’re playing, so it’s a lot of composers and musicians that we have a lot of respect for, but at the same time, once it’s time to play the music, we’re still just playing music. Whether it’s a piece that Wayne Shorter wrote or that Michael wrote, we’re still playing a composition, and there are certain parameters that we’re more literal with, some that we’re more free with.

It’s almost like that questions will be answered for each individual listener. Some people will say “Whoa, that Benny Golson tune sounded totally different.” And other people will just say, “Oh, I recognize that. It’s Benny Golson.” I’m actually interested in people who aren’t aware of those original recordings, maybe more of a casual listener or a new listener. I would be really curious to hear their impression if they don’t know all the versions of [Golson’s] “Stablemates” and the lineage of that song. They hear us playing that and then they hear us playing an original by Mary. Is it all jazz? Well, kinda.

Halvorson: The covers we chose were pretty diverse, so I think there is a good chance that most people will at least have a few that they’re not familiar with, even if they’re familiar with the bulk of them. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s a person who knows all the original versions of all the standards.

Formanek: I mean, we didn’t even know all the standards! (laughs)

So how did the repertoire come together? Were the song selections made by committee decision? Or did you each bring a handful of tunes to the table on your own?

Formanek: A little bit of both. We each had some suggestions, and then ultimately we each brought some things in. I think everyone tried to think about this band and what this band did and not just bringing in stuff we liked, or where we could play all our fancy shit. It was more like I would think, “I would love to hear them play this tune.”

In the range of pieces that we did, things really go from clear, basic transcription all the way over to tunes where we really pulled things apart. There wasn’t one approach to the way we arranged the music. It could be very literal or very abstract at any given time, even within any given piece. The idea with each tune was: What can we do with it that would make it sound like us?

Let’s return to tonight’s performance, and to the Vision Festival in general. It’s a celebration of avant-garde music and free improvisation. How would you orient newcomers to this music? What would you say that might prepare a fan of straight-ahead or contemporary jazz for what they’d be hearing tonight?

Halvorson: I think it’s all about how they approach it. If they don’t want to like it or aren’t interested in getting into it or being open to it, then they probably won’t like it. I’ve had experiences of playing in museums – I played a solo show in a gallery – and people were just wandering around checking out the art. People that had no clue what I was doing or why. And I found that they were way more open to checking it out because it was in this art museum environment; they felt that their minds were in this place of experimenting and checking stuff out. They were more open to sit and listen to this pretty “weird” set of music.

But it also depends. It depends on the context. It depends on where people’s heads are at. Did they come to see it? Were they trying to eat a meal and were assaulted by this band in the corner? (laughs) I think it really depends on what your mindset is.

Formanek: I’ve always felt that even people who are very open-minded in all other mediums, when it comes to music, they need something to grab onto. People can watch the most avant-garde film or read the most non-linear book and be able to hang with all that visual abstraction. But when it comes to music, it’s like they need to be able to follow it. The thing is, you don’t really have to follow music. You don’t have to know what it is in real time. You don’t have to know where it’s going. Some people get disturbed if the music doesn’t go where they think it’s going to go. But music isn’t necessarily there for you to follow where it’s going. It’s just there.

I would tell them this: Look for the things that they really like in music and try to seek it out in some of the stuff we’re doing. Community helps. Go out to concerts, if you can stand it. Most people can stand just about anything for a night. (laughs)

Fujiwara: It’s not about liking something or not liking something. Those aren’t your only two options. A lot of listeners out there probably follow politics, even if they don’t like what’s going. But they find it important. So then it goes to the larger picture of the importance of art in society in general, not just the idea of enjoying a night of music. You have to realize that art is an important part of your life, that it’s healthy for your brain to be a creative person, to be an open person, to be an empathetic person.

Look, people don’t always eat their vegetables. But you eat them because they’re good for you. So with the music, it’s not just, “Well, am I going to like it?” Because you might not. But if you’re committed to having a real experience and seeing how you feel about it, whether it’s Vision Festival or our music or someone else’s music … you can really learn a lot from it. You just have to decide that it’s important to check this out and experience it for yourself.

So I would tell people that for one week, instead of looking at all those Facebook posts that make them feel unhappy and unsettled about their lives, that make them feel jealous and worthless, grab an Eric Dolphy or John Coltrane record — or come to the Vision Festival — and just listen for a week straight. Even if you hate the music, you will at least have gotten off all that other stuff, so you won’t be unhappy! (laughs)

But seriously, I’m convinced if you really trade that time for this music, you will get something from it. I can’t promise you that you’ll like it, but you will be a more enhanced human being.

Thumbscrew’s next performance is on June 14 at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. For more information, visit the band’s website. Mary Halvorson will be playing at The Jazz Gallery in New York City on June 7 and 8 as part of the Ben Goldberg Quintet. To stay up to date, visit her online

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