Each album on its own makes for a compelling statement.
At the start of this year, jazz/experimental label Cuneiform Records announced it would be taking a hiatus to assess its future. The news came as a surprise, given the label’s 35-year run and its success in 2017 (particularly with Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks). The hiatus, happily, didn’t hold. Fittingly, Thumbscrew – a trio of musicians who seem to never stop playing or innovating – broke the silence with a matched pair of albums called Ours and Theirs. As the titles suggest, the releases include one album of originals and another of covers. A label in question gets a big boost from an ensemble that leaves no doubt.
Ourshas space for three songs each from guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and bassist Michael Formanek. The musicians frequently perform together in various groups, and their familiarity shows. Formanek’s “Cruel Heartless Bastards” changes tempo constantly, yet the trio stays right with each other; apparently Formanek and Fujiwara have their brains wired together. Formanek’s playing as well as his composition warrants attention throughout the album. Halvorson has probably received the most attention of any of the three, and Fujiwara usually feels the most restless, but Ours for the first time sounds like Formanek’s turn to shine. Opener “Snarling Joys” begins with his bouncy plucking and even has Halvorson solos, Formanek moves around providing more a countermelody than rhythmic support.
Fans of the group will likely discover that Ours sounds like a Thumbscrew record. There’s no faint praise there, nor does that thought imply that the group is going through the motions. Instead, the three musicians have found their groove, and this album offers work progressing out of their self-titled debut and 2016’s Convallaria. The musicians take a kinetic approach without sounding reckless; they hew to the compositions, which are themselves unpredictable. Listening to them meld unlikely lines to each other while still stretch as individuals remains a joy.
But it’s the covers disc that offers deeper insight. The group’s emphasis on experimentation can deflect thoughts about some of their melodic and traditional sensibilities. Halvorson’s unusual voicings and burst of notes and Fujiwara’s intense style make it easier to hear their up-to-the-minute sound as forming from the current scene rather than continuing a tradition learned on scratchy records. Part of what has made the group so successful, though, is its ability to hang just off the edge of normal jazz, close enough to make sense, but weird enough to never quite be anything other than itself.
With Theirs, Thumbscrew gives us 10 insights into its roots, and a reminder that each of these artists could have chosen, say, a bebop path. Fujiwara’s knowledge of Max Roach fits here already, but Halvorson’s odd, puncutated lines never have, until she picks up some of these retro melodies, as on Benny Golson’s “Stablemates.” Whether tackling bop, avant-garde, or South American flair, the trio honors the traditional sound of the pieces while using arrangements that make sense with Thumbscrew’s sensibilities. Their cover of Wayne Shorter’s “Dance Cadaverous” works, with attention to the mood of the original, but with an irritability unique to this lineup.
Each album on its own makes for a compelling statement, but they work best as a pair.Theirs highlights not only the group’s knowledge of tradition, but its facility with melody, a gift easily hidden by other concerns. Ours continues the work of the past few years, but now with a partner record that shines new light on Thumbscrew’s aesthetic. The Halvorson-Formanek-Fujiwara combination tends not to disappear for long, but this occurrence offers new revelations as well as new hope for a label that’s on a break.