Thumbscrew – Ours and Theirs (2018)

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Back in March (2018), Mary Halvorson had issued a record Code Girl that was a de facto expansion of the Thumbscrew trio she maintains with Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums). Unbeknownst to most everybody at the time, the forward-looking guitarist and her erstwhile rhythm section were plotting to release not one but two new albums. That’s not the end of the intrigue, either: the CD’s were to be released on the Cuneiform Records imprint, a label that went into a suspended state at the end of last year, with no plans to release any new material going forward as it ponders its future in a world that’s grown increasingly inhospitable for independent record companies.

Turns out, there were a lot of people not ready for this long-time curator of progressive, challenging and innovative music to exit the stage, even if the absence turned out only to be a sabbatical. Count Halvorson, Formanek and Fujiwara among those who couldn’t accept this void. They persuaded label founder Steven Feigenbaum to walk back on his plans of a 2018 without any new activity by giving him an album of fresh originals named Ours and an album of covers dubbed Theirs.

In case there is any trepidation that the circumstances surrounding the release of these records ends up being the most attractive thing about them, let’s lay those fears to rest right now: Ours and Theirs might be the best work so far by this trio, and they’ve had no slack in their work before then.

Theirs is a surprise, not because it’s good, but because Thumbscrew eschewed their usual abstract, craggy approach and played these borrowed tunes in ways that make them easier to recognize. Yet, it still enwraps the listener by doing all the little things so well. Tone, timbre, precision and even an element of surprise are done with taste and discretion; it’s what makes these three among the best jazz musicians in New York in recent years.

Halvorson mostly opts for a resonant, chiming tone on her guitar that illuminates these time-honored harmonies. It allows her to carry Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous” so well, Fujiwara and Formanek can wander off the reservation and create this subversive current that doesn’t push the lovely melody off its stride, similar to the tactic used on the Miles Davis’ Quintet original recording of another Shorter classic, “Nefertiti.” Fujiwara threatens to overwhelm Halvorson during “East of the Sun,” creating the illusion of chaos, but in reality, the guitarist remains closely tethered to the melody and Formanek finds that illusive middle ground between her and the drummer.

“Stablemates” is played much more straight ahead (and is highlighted by Formanek’s mint solo turn), but merely the ghostly effects of Halvorson’s guitar drastically alter the song’s mood. The ballad feeling is respected on “The Peacocks,” but Halvorson makes her notes famously dip very judiciously, being careful not to overdo it.

What little constraint that’s imposed by playing other people’s compositions are cast aside for the all-originals Ours, and the equal distribution of contributions — three compositions apiece — insures that unpredictability reigns supreme here.

“Cruel Heartless Bastards” might be the most unexpected of them all; Formanek’s song is ostensibly punk rock that engages into some accelerando and diverted by escape hatches to trippy passages. Formanek is responsible for another ‘rocker,’ “Words That Rhyme With Spangle,” which definitely does not use rock chords, and Halvorson sets her pedal effects into a tizzy that propels the song off its rails.

“Snarling Joys” was penned by Halvorson but Formanek is the song’s true star, setting down a finespun path for the composer to follow and then paring off for an flawless aside. Even more interesting is another Halvorson product “Smoketree,” a highly intricate piece that succeeds because of the intricate interplay among all three.

Cuneiform Records may not be so active these days, but what few shots they take these days are hitting the mark. Ours and Theirs are both bulls eyes from Thumbscrew and a strong way to persuade this quality label to not give up the fight.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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