THUMBSCREW
Mary Halvorson / Michael Formanek / Tomas Fujiwara

"...a streamlined trio quickly becoming today's premiere small jazz group"
Francis Davis, NPR

"An essential aspect of this trio’s chemistry lies in each musician’s willingness to expend so much creative energy making the others sound better.”
Bill Meyer, Magnet

“Made up of three highly distinctive voices in the world of jazz and avant-garde music, Thumbscrew should probably collapse under the weight of its own star power but Tomas Fujiwara (drums), Mary Halvorson (electric guitar) and Michael Formanek (acoustic bass) are just too aware of the potential of this supertrio to let that happen.”
Something Else!

Thumbscrew, a band consisting of three well-established leaders on the new jazz/new music scene, make inviting music full of wonder and discovery. Their albums document the group's commitment to new music created specifically for this ensemble.


NEVER IS ENOUGH



RUNE 478

A funny thing happened while Thumbscrew was hunkered down at City of Asylum, the Pittsburgh arts organization that has served as a creative hotbed for the collective trio via a series of residencies. Late in the summer of 2019 the immediate plan was for drummer Tomas Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Michael Formanek to rehearse and record a disparate program of Anthony Braxton compositions they’d gleaned from his Tri-Centric Foundation archives, pieces released last year on The Anthony Braxton Project, a Cuneiform album celebrating his 75th birthday. At the same time, the triumvirate brought in a batch of original compositions that they also spent time refining and recording, resulting in Never Is Enough, a brilliant program of originals slated for release on Cuneiform.

There’s a precedent for twined projects by the trio serving as fascinating foils for each other. In June 2018, Cuneiform simultaneously released an album of Thumbscrew originals, Ours, and Theirs, a disparate but cohesive session exploring music by the likes of Brazilian choro master Jacob do Bandolim, pianist Herbie Nichols, and Argentine tango master Julio de Caro. Those albums were also honed and recorded during a City of Asylum residency. While not intended as the same kind of dialogue, The Anthony Braxton Project and Never Is Enough do seem to speak eloquently (if cryptically) to each other.

“Braxton’s presence was very strong in this period, spending time with his music, reading some of the composition notes” Formanek says. “I think and hope the influence was there. It was definitely in our minds. I don’t know if there’s a direct influence, but definitely inspiration.”

Each member contributed three pieces to the project, and the album opens with Fujiwara’s amiable “Camp Easy,” a gently loping piece that starts with a pastoral improvised passage that anticipates the spacious counterpoint between Formanek’s thoughtfully surefooted bass and Halvorson’s slippery lines. Fujiwara’s “Through an Open Window” features a very different kind of movement, with episodic motifs that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Inspired by a hotel view in Sarajevo, the piece suggests a layered panorama, “a cityscape skyline, rain falling, mountains, a lot of visual inspiration with people, clouds, and cars subtly moving and shifting,” Fujiwara says.

With a rock ‘n’ roll edge, Halvorson’s “Sequel to Sadness” maintains the coiled energy of a panther stalking prey, with strategic pauses and a centerpiece drum solo that builds delicious tension. She also contributes the album’s most unabashed ballad, a supplely lyrical tune inspired by standards she’s been working on. And Fractured Sanity expands from a telegraphic guitar riff into quicksilver conversation with all three players offering agitated commentary.

Formanek’s title track introduces a whole new array of shades to Thumbscrew’s already brimming palette. After decades of almost entirely avoiding the instrument on recordings, he created a squally, atmospheric piece that gives him plenty of space for his non-idiomatic electric bass work. “I conceived ‘Never Is Enough’ as a piece I was going to record on the electric bass, but could play on either one,” he says. The ambiguous title riffs on a classic New Yorker cartoon (“How about never — is never good for you?”) but speaks more to “the ever present feeling of being held captive by the insanity of the last four years of...whatever this has been.”

Opening with a brief lockstep theme, Formanek’s “Emojis Have Consequences” gives each player a distinct part, with their evolving two-against-one interactions weaving a quietly volatile matrix. The album’s closer, “Scam Likely,” is another palette- expanding by Formanek, with a long abstract duo passage featuring his ambient, electronically altered and synthesized electric bass calls set against Fujiwara’s beautifully textured trap work. Halvorson’s arrival adds pulsars and star-bursts to the celestial soundscape, which coalesces like a galaxy being born. Which makes sense considering the music took shape in the midst of Thumbscrew’s deep dive into Braxton’s vast and varied oeuvre.

“We weren’t separating them out when we were rehearsing and recording,” Halvorson says. “It was just going through this music, and one tune might be Braxton, and one might be an original. The thing I get from both is an intense sense of focus.”

The focus each player brings to Thumbscrew and the dense web of experience they share is part of what makes the ensemble so extraordinary.

Never is Enough press release

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THE ANTHONY BRAXTON PROJECT



RUNE 475

"Probably no one better qualified to make a Braxton tribute than these guys." – S. Victor Aaron / Something Else Reviews

Over the course of six decades NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton has created a singularly vast and variegated body of music as a composer and recording artist, an oeuvre encompassing projects ranging in scope from his pioneering 1969 solo saxophone album For Alto to 2016’s epic opera Trillium J (The Non-Unconfessionables). Musicians around the world have been coming together over the past year to celebrate his 75th birthday with an array of performances and recordings, but leave it to the all-star collective trio Thumbscrew to focus an utterly personal lens on previously unheard compositions with The Anthony Braxton Project. For fans familiar with Braxton’s music the project offers a whole new window into his genius for designing protean musical situations pregnant with possibilities. Those less acquainted with his work might find themselves enthralled and amazed by the sheer diversity of rhythmic and melodic material explored by Thumbscrew. The trio’s fifth album extends the group’s relationship with Cuneiform, which has released all of the band’s recordings.

Invited to explore the Tri-Centric Foundation’s voluminous Braxton archives in New Haven, Conn. as part of the Braxton75 celebration, drummer/percussionist Tomas Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Michael Formanek spent a long afternoon looking for rarely played pieces that could fit their instrumental palette. “The idea was for us to choose compositions of Anthony’s, mostly early compositions, which hadn’t been previously recorded (or, in a couple cases, recorded only once or twice),” says Halvorson. “We chose pieces that captured our imagination and that we thought would work well for the instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums or vibraphone. Our choices included graphic scores, complex notated pieces, and everything in between.”

Like with several previous Thumbscrew albums, the triumvirate used an extended, four-week residency at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh to prepare for the recording. Working on the music daily (while also honing a new book of original Thumbscrew compositions), they developed arrangements of varying detail based on the scores and the corresponding catalogue notes for each composition. While aiming to understand and execute Braxton’s intention with each piece, the nature of his music required them to shape the material anew. “We have a shared language in terms of how we improvise, but the composition very much guides and informs our improvisations, so having music from a new composer puts us in a different frame of mind and adds another layer to what we do as a trio,” Fujiwara says. “Looking through the Tri-Centric Archives, we were like kids in a candy store–a feeling that there were unlimited options that all would work for us and be a joy to explore–and we had a great guide in Tri-Centric’s Carl Testa. Mention a certain flavor and he’d show us all we could ever dream of."

The album opens with “no. 52” a piece full of surprising twists, starting with the shuffle-like bass line, shifting rhythmic patterns and wild interval leaps. With all the twists, the track unfolds like a jazz tune, with a long opening theme followed by improvised passages that return briefly to the theme. On a different tack, “no. 157” is a brief, almost through composed tune built on two overlaying lines that run their course as disjointed counterpoint. All three players get a solo crack at the reoccurring “no. 14,” a graphic score featuring a series of geometric shapes. Halvorson’s meditative investigation feels like it’s tinged with the blues, while Fujiwara leaves plenty of space as he builds tension rolling from his tom to his bass drum, and Formanek strolls insouciantly, like a man enjoying a late afternoon crossing a well-tended park. All three tracks were first takes, and carry Braxton’s unmistakable DNA. “With all of Anthony’s compositions the identity is so strong,” Halvorson says. “You really feel you can go anywhere­–it feels expansive, not limiting. He’s setting a really strong energy and intention, but knowing him, you know he wants you to take risks, try things out. He wants us to be creative and explore within the parameters.”

If “no. 14” is something of a bagatelle, “no. 68” is an intricate and detailed piece that introduces Fujiwara’s vibes into the Thumbscrew mix for the first time. Atmospheric and redolent of shimmering horizons, the piece features the closest thing to a traditional three-part score of any composition they selected “with three lines of music, a top line that was probably for saxophone, a bass part marked with dynamics and arco and pizzicato, and a percussion line,” Formanek says. “It’s a very composed piece with intricate rhythms and dramatic interval leaps. In the last part we all play a rhythm together and that’s the end.”

Each piece shines a light on a different facet of Braxton’s musical universe. “no. 274” is the only entry from Braxton’s Ghost Trance work. Completely notated but requiring constant interpretation, it’s built on musical cells with constantly shifting tempos. The point isn’t to master the system. “It’s about how you deal with music that’s almost impossible to play and what happens when you do them with someone else, opening up possibilities you couldn’t plan,” Formanek says. The shadow of a march falls on “no. 61” a playfully stuttering and surging piece originally written for a saxophone/bass duo. The album closes with a blast of joy with Braxton’s homage to the Southwest territory bands of the 1930s. With an irresistible walking bass line and ringing unison notes on guitar and vibes, it’s a bright, sunny number “with very specific stylistic references,” Formanek says. “The composition notes mentioned playing the way Basie might have played some of this music, with that bounce and feel. The written music really fits in that style, but in a really Braxton way.”

Formanek’s relationship with Braxton’s music dates back to buying a compilation of his Arista Freedom recordings in the mid-1970s. Immediately struck by the music, he tried to decipher the symbols and diagrams that Braxton used as titles. He followed his output over the decades “amazed at the range of music and how much he pushed himself to be creative and indulge all of his curiosities, the way he used the musicians to help realize the vision,” Formanek says. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he had a chance perform with Braxton, joining a multimedia production at the Knitting Factory as the second bassist.

Wesleyan is where Halvorson came into Braxton’s orbit during her undergrad years from 1998-2002, a creative relationship that launched her as one of the most celebrated improvisers to emerge in the 21st century. “I consider him one of the main catalysts for me deciding to become a musician,” she says. “Studying with Anthony, learning his musical systems and playing music with him remains one of the most important and inspiring musical experiences of my life.”

Fujiwara met Braxton through Taylor Ho Bynum when the trumpeter was attending Wesleyan, which led to several opportunities to perform with Braxton in different settings, including a trio with drummer Tom Rainey documented on the 2014 album Trio (New Haven) 2013 (New Braxton House).  “Having time to talk and hang out with Anthony, his energy and his whole presence has been very inspiring,” Fujiwara says. “Both as a person and a musician he gives this real jolt of energy and creativity and positivity to try things and explore things and push myself.”

The Anthony Braxton Project press release

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OURS



RUNE 439

Thumbscrew demonstrates their unique collective musical vision in contrasting but complementary ways on two exciting new CDs. Ours and Theirs are the first to be released on a newly revamped Cuneiform Records, just returning from a hiatus. Comprised of longtime collaborators Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara, and Mary Halvorson, Thumbscrew is a true collaborative effort with all three members contributing at an equal rate both in terms of composition and improvisation.

Born out of a residency at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum where Thumbscrew created their striking second album Convallaria, Ours and Theirs showcase Thumbscrew in two different contexts performing all originals on Ours and all covers on Theirs. Both albums present a meticulous and intuitive original sound that could only be crafted during focused and intensive time as a collective in a place like City of Asylum. “When we arrived at City of Asylum for our second residency in June 2017, we immediately said, ’we’re home!’” says Fujiwara, “The feelings we get when being at City of Asylum, around the people that make it such a unique place doing great work...All of this contributes to a creative process that’s open and inclusive and experimental.”

Tomas, Michael, and Mary are no strangers to each other’s work, having performed in a multitude of projects together, including Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus, Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up’s After All is Said, and most recently, in Mary Halvorson’s critically-acclaimed Code Girl.

Ours, as its namesake suggests, is an album of original compositions with Fujiwara, Formanek and Halvorson contributing three works apiece. Opening with Halvorson’s striking “Snarling Joys,” Ours begins with delicate (and ever so slightly warped) ensemble figures that very naturally develop into an urgent and tense thrill-ride of a track, with a brilliant bass solo from Formanek. Fujiwara’s “Saturn Way” shows the ensemble bouncing off of each other’s rhythmic framework with Fujiwara anchoring the group through a pummeling rolling tom figure that slowly descends into a spacious and attentive group improvisation. Later, on Formanek’s punk-thru-the-wormhole style “Cruel Heartless Bastards” the ensemble shifts metric pulse in total lockstep on the turn of a dime while a teasing 4/4 figure creates a sense of gravity for the entire composition. Halvorson takes the track to the stratosphere with a dizzying guitar pedal laden solo after the group snakes their way through Formanek’s labyrinth.

On the contrast between the two records, Halvorson says, “The approach to presenting a unique and personal take on a composition is the same whether it’s one of Ours or one of Theirs.”

Ours & Theirs press release

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THEIRS



RUNE 441

Thumbscrew demonstrates their unique collective musical vision in contrasting but complementary ways on two exciting new CDs. Ours and Theirs are the first to be released on a newly revamped Cuneiform Records, just returning from a hiatus. Comprised of longtime collaborators Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara, and Mary Halvorson, Thumbscrew is a true collaborative effort with all three members contributing at an equal rate both in terms of composition and improvisation.

Born out of a residency at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum where Thumbscrew created their striking second album Convallaria, Ours and Theirs showcase Thumbscrew in two different contexts performing all originals on Ours and all covers on Theirs. Both albums present a meticulous and intuitive original sound that could only be crafted during focused and intensive time as a collective in a place like City of Asylum. “When we arrived at City of Asylum for our second residency in June 2017, we immediately said, ’we’re home!’” says Fujiwara, “The feelings we get when being at City of Asylum, around the people that make it such a unique place doing great work...All of this contributes to a creative process that’s open and inclusive and experimental.”

Tomas, Michael, and Mary are no strangers to each other’s work, having performed in a multitude of projects together, including Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus, Tomas Fujiwara and the Hook Up’s After All is Said, and most recently, in Mary Halvorson’s critically-acclaimed Code Girl.

Theirs features covers penned by venerable composers, from North American jazz legends Benny Golson and Wayne Shorter, to South American composers Julio De Caro (Argentina) and Jacob Do Bandolim (Brazil), to songwriter Evelyn Danzig and Dutch avant-gardist Misha Mengelberg. Thumbscrew covers considerable ground in bringing their unique arrangements and ensemble sensibility to this transfixing set of other composers’ music. On the selection of covers, Fujiwara says, “Each of us brought in a number of covers--more than double what we ended up releasing--that we were curious for Thumbscrew to try. We played through each composition many times, trying different arrangements, and slowly started to focus in on which ones felt right for the group.” Formanek states that “for me it was mostly a matter of which tunes I thought would have strong enough bones to sustain a Thumbscrew interpretation. It was also a matter of imagining how certain pieces would work with Mary, Tomas, and my approaches that wouldn’t sound like just another version.”

On the contrast between the two records, Halvorson says, “The difference is that with the covers we’re aware of trying to honor the composer’s vision, and in many cases, classic versions of the song which serve as inspirations.”

Ours & Theirs press release

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CONVALLARIA



RUNE 415

Creative artists aren’t subject to state persecution in the United States, but indifference can exact its own cost, just as generous support can pay steep dividends. Thumbscrew spent two weeks honing the tunes on Convallaria at City of Asylum, a residency program in Pittsburgh, and for Thumbscrew the opportunity for intensive, undistracted work and woodshedding yielded a particularly striking body of music.

Already closely bonded by extensive collaborations in a variety of overlapping ensembles, the powerhouse triumvirate got to spend the kind of concentrated time together that’s “almost unheard of these days,” says Formanek. “I’ve done some composition residencies working on my own. But we were all there together, working on music every day, trying things out. I miss that from my younger days.”

“It was amazing,” agrees Halvorson. “Everyone’s so busy. Even with my own band it can be like pulling teeth to get one rehearsal together. For two weeks we played every day and worked on all the new music. It really helped us to take the band to the next level.”

Convallaria is the work of a true collective with all three players contributing compositions and taking equal responsibility for shaping the music’s flow. While exploring an array of improvisational spaces, the band has honed a sinewy sound marked by transparent textures and astringent rhythms. It’s music that pushes outward and snaps back into unexpectedly altered forms.

Convallaria press release

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THUMBSCREW



RUNE 365

While Michael Formanek (double bass), Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Mary Halvorson (guitar) are all known for their prodigious capabilities as improvisers, Thumbscrew is more of a composer’s vehicle. While many cooperative bands draw on material recycled from other projects, "One of the things we said at the beginning is let’s just write music for Thumbscrew and it will only be Thumbscrew music," says Formanek. "It really is a three-composer trio, and all of our tunes have our basic aesthetics attached. But we want everybody to have input. Nobody’s afraid to make a decision. It’s one of the first co-ops I’ve been in where everyone’s really willing to take control at any given moment."

With each musician contributing three tunes, the album encompasses an array of textures and strategies, while maintaining a consistently open and transparent sound. Generating tremendous intensity without necessarily increasingly volume or density, Thumbscrew buzzes and crackles, burns and croons. The group is both open and composerly. Part of what makes the band’s music so engaging is that they draw widely and deeply from any number of sonic sources.

Part of the trio’s strength flows from the deep interconnecting bonds they’ve forged. Halvorson and Fujiwara first started playing together in cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s Sextet. They also work together in the collective quartet Reverse Blue with Chris Speed and Eivind Opsvik, and Mike Reed’s fascinating Sun Ra-inspired ensemble Living By Lanterns.

They first worked with Formanek when he subbed in Bynum’s band in 2011, and the chemistry between the three was so readily apparent they immediately started looking into performance opportunities as a trio. This fine, distinctive effort is the result of 2 years of planning, rehearsing and gigging.

Thumbscrew press release

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MEDIA
For press and media: cover art and high resolution images are available below for download (click thumbnail, right-click image and select "Save As.."). Please credit the photographer (when available) and "Courtesy of Cuneiform Records". For more information, click here.

Never is Enough
The Anthony Braxton Project
Ours and Theirs
Convallaria
Thumbscrew

PRESS RELEASES
Never is Enough press release
The Anthony Braxton Project press release
Ours & Theirs press release
Convallaria press release
Thumbscrew press release
Thumbscrew press quotes

CUNEIFORM EMAIL BLASTS
4/15/2014: Thumbscrew Tours Europe and North America

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