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Is there such a thing as “band at first sight?” The short but musically rich history of Thumbscrew begs for that sort of mythologizing. Ever since the day that bassist Michael Formanek subbed on a gig featuring guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, the three have been seemingly inseparable. Besides the six albums they’ve released as a trio, they’ve also doubled as the rhythm section for bands led by all three members.But the reality isn’t quite that romantic. While all three felt an instant chemistry during that first performance, as with any band, it took work to achieve the singular identity they’ve now carved out for the trio. “There’s so much that goes into being in a band,” Formanek explains during a group Zoom call with his bandmates from their respective homes in March. “There’s intimacy. There’s like-mindedness. There’s trust. There’s all these things that have to happen, but you have to create that. You’re sort of faking it in the beginning to try to see if you can make it into something. I think we did that really well for the first couple of years.”There’s no faking the distinctive sound heard on Thumbscrew’s latest album, Never Is Enough (Cuneiform). Each member of the band, on their own, is among the most unique voices in modern jazz: Halvorson’s wiry, warped guitar lines, the scrawled intentionality of a Cy Twombly painting translated into sound; Formanek’s burly yet elusive foundation, like something enormous and mysterious skulking in the shadows; Fujiwara’s multi-directional drumming providing unpredictable support, the breathtaking sensation of missing a step but landing safely, if shaken, on the ground below.
Something alchemical arises when these three personalities converge. It evades narrow description, ranging on their latest outing from the raveled musings of Fujiwara’s “Camp Easy” to the focused intensity of Halvorson’s “Sequel to Sadness” to the eyebrow-arched precision of Formanek’s “Emojis Have Consequences.” Daunting technical complexity pairs with wry humor in a way that’s nearly impossible to pull off but dazzling to witness, imbuing each piece with both exploratory verve and bold character.“With this group, we can be in three really different places and still have a group sound,” Fujiwara says. “We all know this music, and as soon as someone hints at something, everyone knows where they are. Even if these two are doing something completely different than what I’m doing, there’s never any doubt that I’m still being heard. So we’re able to expand the picture because we can be in three very different places but still very together. That to me is a rare thing.”Well before Formanek entered the picture, Halvorson and Fujiwara shared a long-established connection. They’d first worked together in a group led by saxophonist Matana Roberts, extended their relationship through their tenure in cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s sextet and continued to collaborate throughout the early ’00s in each other’s groups as well as in ensembles with cellist Tomeka Reid, clarinetist Ben Goldberg and drummer Mike Reed. It was on a recording date with Bynum that Formanek filled in and Thumbscrew was born. “The three of us just hit it off as a rhythm section,” Halvorson says. “So we did one of those ‘Hey, we should get together and play’ things that usually doesn’t happen. But in this case it did, and it took on its own momentum at that point.”“The first thing that happens when I really connect with people that I end up playing a lot with is not so much what I hear as what I feel — or what I don’t feel,” adds Formanek. “There’s so many great [musicians] around, but there’s a whole other intuitive quality that’s not the norm with most people. I really trust that.”After a few performances to test the water, the trio quickly agreed to exclusively perform material composed expressly for Thumbscrew. The early experience of playing each other’s pre-existing tunes did leave its mark, though — most explicitly on the opening track of the band’s self-titled 2014 debut. Fujiwara so enjoyed playing one of the pieces from Formanek’s quartet book that he wrote his own composition inspired by it, immortalized as “Cheap Knock Off.”“That was a way to get to know Mike, through his music,” Fujiwara says. “Specifically, taking one of his compositions from another album and then saying, ‘OK, what is that filtered through my ears? What does that make me want to bring to the group?’”
[caption id="attachment_38799" align="alignleft" width="1200"] Michael Formanek[/caption]
Halvorson expands that notion beyond the bandto the extended scene of innovative artists from which Thumbscrew emerged. “People always ask, ‘Who are your influences?’ [The tendency is to] name somebody that’s dead or somebody that we grew up listening to. But I think we’re influenced by our peers and influenced by each other. This group is an example of that. ‘Cheap Knock Off’ doesn’t sound anything like the piece of Mike’s that it was a ‘cheap knock off’ of. But nevertheless, Mike’s influence permeated that piece.”By the time of the release of their 2016 follow-up, Convallaria, Thumbscrew had not only evolved into one of the modern-jazz world’s most thrilling and adventurous trios but had been absorbed into both Fujiwara’s quintet The Hook Up and Formanek’s big band Ensemble Kolossus. Two years later, they’d also form the core of Halvorson’s abstract song-based group Code Girl. As Formanek was quick to point out, there are plenty of precedents for self-contained rhythm sections that move in and out of disparate contexts together, throughout the history of jazz as well as in R&B, blues and rock.Fujiwara picks up on that idea to indicate a rooting in tradition that may not seem immediately evident in a group with such exploratory instincts. “As obvious as it might sound,” the drummer says, “the three of us really love what’s called ‘jazz music.’ Some people that we play with might have an aversion to that, but we really love the totality and history of this music, the innovations, the creativity and the classics. For me, The Hook Up is a jazz quintet through my experience, my personality and my aesthetics. So the idea of a rhythm section anchoring an ensemble — Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison and McCoy Tyner or Butch Warren, Billy Higgins and Sonny Clark — was something I very much wanted to develop.”The trio’s passion for the entirety of the jazz spectrum led to its most surprising venture to date. In the summer of 2018, Thumbscrew returned with two simultaneous releases: a third helping of original music titled Ours, paired with a collection of covers and standards aptly christened Theirs. Somewhat unexpectedly, devising their own takes on other composers’ material, and thus shedding ownership of individual tunes, only added to the group’s sense of shared mission.The 10 selections ultimately chosen for Theirs were as eccentric and eclectic as the band itself. The album opens with a funhouse mirror rendition of Benny Golson’s oft-recorded “Stablemates,” an irreverent (though respectful) shot across the bow of jazz tradition. The band carves its own circuitous path through the traditions of Brazilian music with Jacob do Bandolim’s “Benzinho” and bebop with Herbie Nichols’ “House Party Starting.” Thumbscrew’s pantheon of composers is broad enough to encompass Wayne Shorter, Stanley Cowell and Misha Mengelberg, all of whom prove ripe for distinctive reinterpretation.
“Fundamentally, even without articulating it, the idea has always been for Thumbscrew to be a total collective,” Formanek says. “Even though we’re three equal voices, there are other considerations because the composer has the ultimate vision [for their own pieces]. But with these other tunes, they’re just vehicles that we can do what we want with. They’re songs that we love, but we don’t necessarily have to be reverent to them. Theirs was important because it increased our ability to co-create in real time.”A key to the band’s development has been their semi-regular residencies at the Pittsburgh nonprofit City of Asylum, where they’ve developed every album since Convallaria. “We really connected with City of Asylum, with the cofounders and with all the staff that work there,” Fujiwara says. “Not only did we have a great time working on music every day in this very rare and unique opportunity, but we also loved the neighborhood in which we were staying and were excited to continue it on a regular basis. It clicked very quickly and felt like home, and luckily we’ve been able to go home regularly.”
[caption id="attachment_38801" align="alignleft" width="768"] Tomas Fujiwara[/caption]
“It’s unusual these days for people to do band residencies,” Halvorson adds. “It seems to be fairly common for musicians to go away on solo artist residencies, but to have this opportunity to just be with a band for a month, workshopping stuff every day — other than being in college and rehearsing every day with my band, I can’t remember the last time that was a scheduling reality.” Ours and Theirs set a precedent for developing two separate projects concurrently, meaning that they could feed off of one another rather than standing in isolation. The band took the same approach to their 2019 residency, working on a new book of material along with a selection of largely unreleased Anthony Braxton compositions. This time, though, the results were released separately; The Anthony Braxton Project dropped in 2020 to coincide with Braxton’s 75th birthday, leaving Never Is Enough fortuitously in reserve to be released this year, mid-pandemic.The Anthony Braxton Project began at the invitation of the Tri-Centric Foundation, the nonprofit organization founded to support and preserve the prolific composer’s work. With Braxton approaching a landmark birthday, Tri-Centric turned to a number of artists to investigate his archives and interpret his prodigious output. Thumbscrew was a natural fit, Halvorson having studied with Braxton during her formative years at Wesleyan University, forging an enduring musical relationship.
Fujiwara’s path had crossed Braxton’s at various points over the years, from his visits with Bynum at Wesleyan to a 2013 opportunity to record with the master saxophonist in a two-drummer trio along with Tom Rainey. “Anyone that’s ever talked to Braxton knows that he’s completely inspiring,” the drummer says. “He’s such a generous spirit, so encouraging, so creative, so funny. Being around him is a reminder that anything is possible, to not limit yourself and to let your creativity flow. I’ve probably done some of my favorite writing after having spent an hour around him.”Formanek’s direct experience with Braxton had been more limited, consisting of a sole performance as one of two bassists (with frequent Braxton sideman Joe Fonda) in a combination musical-theatrical production at the Knitting Factory during the late ’90s. Being granted access to delve more deeply into the composer’s body of work was a welcome opportunity. “Immersing myself in this stuff, it was just amazing how vast it is,” Formanek says of the Braxton archives. “Not just in terms of quantity, but in the range. There are a few musical thinkers around, people that are constantly imagining what could be and what could happen. Braxton could put that into practice in a way that didn’t seem to have real limits.”With a few exceptions, Thumbscrew opted to focus on a number of early Braxton compositions that had never been recorded and rarely if ever performed. Despite the architectural rigor and arcane fancy of Braxton’s writing, the trio retains its own identity in a fascinating dialogue with the inventive composer. It’s an intriguing insight in light of the perspective-shifting transformations of Theirs as well as in comparison with their own deeply personal originals.“When I was studying with Braxton,” Halvorson recalls, “he would share this very strong love of musical traditions and passion for all different types of music. But there was always the option to throw it all out the window. You never had to approach something exactly the way that the composer did. That’s also something that we all share. So working on Braxton music and working on originals at the same time, everything mixed together.”
[caption id="attachment_38800" align="alignleft" width="768"] Mary Halvorson[/caption]
Upon first listen, Never Is Enough seems like Thumbscrew’s most accessible recording to date. However, the approachability of the music in no way reflects a compromise of its rigor. The trio’s compositions are no less labyrinthine or knotty than in the past. Upon closer inspection, it’s the feel of the playing that makes it seem so inviting despite its considerable challenges. The connection is so intuitive by this point that on Formanek’s title track, the airy atmospherics of its ethereal wanderings is as captivating as the blistering punk outburstthat finally erupts fromthe haze. On Halvorson’s “Heartdrop,” the combination of Formanek’s robust warmth and Fujiwara’s insistently whispering brushwork buoy the composer’s gnarled lyricism into something very close to an earnest ballad, albeit one determined to mar its own unmistakable beauty.On “Through an Open Window,” Fujiwara twists time through mind-bending convolutions, though the trio remains tautly interlocked even through its illusory, M.C. Escher-like torsions. Halvorson’s “Fractured Sanity” is prime evidence of the together-while-apart qualities that Fujiwara described, as all three diverge into agitated scurrying before reconvening into a tense unity that exists under the perpetual threat of dissolution. The drummer’s “Unsung Procession” slinks stealthily and serpent-like, while Formanek’s closer, “Scam Likely,” generates alien landscapes from the composer’s processed electric bass, a new texture in the band’s palette.The Anthony Braxton Project and Never Is Enough are wildly different albums, though their kinship is evident when placed side by side. While it’s difficult to draw one-to-one comparisons, traces of Braxton’s precise angles and obscure construction can be felt in these new original tunes, while the trio’s delight in one another’s most daring swerves and leaps draws out the off-kilter whimsy of Braxton’s audacious structures. “If you’re listening to a certain musician a lot, they’re naturally going to influence your playing without being able to help it,” Halvorson explains. “I’m sure something about Braxton’s aesthetic and the energy of his compositions seeped into our originals, though I don’t know that I’d be able to pinpoint it specifically. It becomes more intuitive than a spoken thing.”A decade into Thumbscrew’s lifespan, writing for one another — and for the collective — has also become integrally intuitive. “We just have more of a history,” Fujiwara says. “The sound of the three of us together is burned into our brains and into our ears. But early on, I felt like I could write anything for this trio. So now it’s as simple as what I feel like writing at that time. They’re going to sound good doing anything, they’re going to be prepared for anything I throw at them and they’re going to be open. When you can do whatever you want, you don’t think about it, you just do it.”Formanek and Halvorson both echo that sentiment, stressing the ability to experiment with the confidence that their bandmates will not only be able to execute the music but will share in the eagerness to venture into the unexplored. “Everyone in this group is going to be thoughtful and work on the music and come prepared,” the guitarist says. “If you have some kind of crazy idea you want to try, this would be the group to try it with. Which is maybe why we’ve done so many different types of records — because we wanted to explore as much terrain as possible.”