Jazz CDs Review: Thumbscrew’s Yin and Yang — “Theirs” and “Ours”

Perhaps the idea is for the listener to come up with his or her own ideal blend, sort of a mix and max approach regarding the strengths in each disc.

Theirs and Ours, Thumbscrew (Cuneiform Records)

Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, and Tomas Fujiwara, the members of Thumbscrew. Photo: Amy Touchette.

By Steve Feeney

Two new albums by Thumbscrew, the redoubtable progressive jazz trio consisting of Mary Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, play serious games with musical polarization.

As might be gleaned from the titles, Ours and Theirs separate the trio’s own compositions and those of others onto individually available discs. Ours – intense, complicated, near-virtuosic — increases my respect for the group. But Theirs is a more pleasing effort.

The opening of Theirs, Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” is a bit puzzling, with Halvorson’s electronically processed guitar sounding as if she’s playing underwater. Formanek and Fujiwara buoy the take, though, and the classic theme provides an opportunity for the group’s distinctive blend of challenging interplay, heady wit, and a sort of bent conceptualism. Even better, they also generate and hang on to (rare for this band) a classic sense of swing.

Jacob Do Bandolim’s “Benzinho” is given a surprisingly straightforward samba feel, though Halvorson can’t quite lay off the effects pedals. Still, the piece charms with an idiomatic blend of uplift and melancholy that will be revisited later in the disc on Julio De Caro’s “Buen Amigo.” There, Halvorson convinces anyone who may have doubted her lyrical capabilities with an exhilarating effusion of complex lines.

Herbie Nichols’s “House Party Starting” is representative of the Monk-ish flair of this underappreciated composer — he can drill a simple theme deep into your ears. Formanek solos effectively above a loping rhythm supplied by Fujiwara.

“The Peacocks,” Jimmy Rowles lovely evocation of quiet elegance, is paid a fine tribute, and Evelyn Danzig’s primal “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)” gently suggests the ways that various folk idioms were infused into works of avant-garde jazz during its formative years.

Perhaps inevitably, there’s a Wayne Shorter piece, a creepy-crawly take on “Dance Cadaverous” that gives Fujiwara plenty of room in which to rumble and rattle. Tunes by Stanley Cowell and Misha Mengelberg add to what is, from top-to-bottom, a very satisfying recital.

Ours features originals by all three players. The hooks are much more elusive here. It takes some serious listening to fathom the musical rewards the threesome are after.

Halvorson’s “Snarling Joys” picks up on the Spanish/Latin vibe explored on Theirs; the track features another example of rich solo work from Formanek. Fujiwara’s “Saturn Way” continues, this time via a more Middle-Eastern tinge, to provide an opportunity for some remarkably subtle interplay among the trio before an abstract interlude lifts the proceedings off of the tune’s musical home planet for an exercise in microtonal travel.

Formanek’s “Cruel Heartless Bastards” wanders down a grungy pop byway, and Halvorson’s “Smoketree” also comes off as rock-ish, with the song’s tension building toward the startling reemergence of the guitarist’s characteristically distorted pointillism.

The bassist’s “Unconditional” finishes the disc in a gentle way, its almost traditional ballad approach twisted around (just a bit) by the players’ signature stylistic quirks. Unusually, given the abstractness of this group’s originals, I found myself humming the melody afterwards.

On one level, these releases raise questions about identity and schizophrenia — yin/yang, head/heart. Perhaps the idea is for the listener to come up with his or her own ideal blend, sort of a mix and max approach regarding the strengths in each disc. For me, Ours shines but Theirs emits a warmer glow. But why pick favorites? Enjoy both. Combined, the CDs constitute an important artistic statement by one of the major jazz trios around.

Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.

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