Thumbscrew is an experimental trio on the fringes of jazz, consisting of Mary Halvorson (guitar), Michael Formanek (double bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums). The new album Convallaria is their 2nd release on Cuneiform Records and it has arrived a little over two years after their self-titled debut.
Convallaria was honed during two weeks of intensive, focused collaboration in July 2015 as part of the City of Asylum artists in residence program in Pittsburgh, PA and then recorded at the end of that stint. Like before, the cooperative trio shares writing duties with Halvorson composing 3 of the album’s 11 tracks, Formanek responsible for 5 compositions, and Fujiwara contributing 3 pieces. Those two weeks of practice probably helped them construct an album that pays greater attention to pacing, diversity and sequencing than their harder-edged debut.
Listening to Thumbscrew can be quite challenging and unnerving, even for the open-minded music lover. Halvorson’s guitar commands attention and is the instrument most responsible for the unsettling feelings this music can induce. As always, Mary is instantly recognizable: her percussive attack, foot-pedal-driven pitch bending, and craggy melodic lines are well established by now. It’s ironic that the same characteristics that allow her to sound unlike anyone else also cause her sound exactly like herself time and time again.
Formanek’s double bass and Fujiwara’s responsive drumming – when combined with Halvorson’s individual guitar style – are what gives Thumbscrew its distinctive sound. Each soloist is equally responsible for directing the music’s course over the album’s 70+ minutes, actively responding to each opportunity as it presents itself. It’s not unusual for ominous distortion to be simultaneously countered with welcoming lucidity. This can make it difficult for the mind to settle on one definitive reaction to the sounds being heard.
Without question, Thumbscrew makes complicated, defiant, freeform music, but the best moments on Convallaria might be the ones that recall more traditional forms (real or imagined). For example, the hint of an Asian or Indian motif as heard on the title track, or an extended moment of bubbling ambience - “Trigger” - that could be channeling a long forgotten tribal rite, or Fujiwara’s primordial drumming during “Danse Insensé” that seems to take inspiration from the natural world. Never fear, untethered turbulence is almost always waiting in the wings.
Convallaria isn’t the kind of album you listen to for relaxation, or as background music when trying to concentrate on something else. It’s best for when you want stir up the contents of your stomach and your mind and then have them settle back a little differently than before.