Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara
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. Convallaria, the startlingly beautiful new Cuneiform album by the collective trio Thumbscrew, offers an all- too-rare case study in the power of underwritten sequestration.
Featuring veteran bass master Michael Formanek, protean guitarist Mary Halvorson, and indefatigably resourceful drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew spent two weeks honing the tunes on Convallaria at City of Asylum, an artist residency program in Pittsburgh originally launched as a refuge for writers in exile. In recent years City of Asylum has expanded its purview to include musicians, establishing the BNY Mellon Jazz Residency that in June/July 2015 hosted Thumbscrew. For Thumbscrew, the opportunity for intensive, undistracted collaboration yielded a particularly striking body of music, even by the standards of these prodigious players.
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.”
Judging from the results, their time was well spent. Like Thumbscrew’s 2014 eponymous Cuneiform debut, 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.
The album opens with Halvorson’s “Cleome,” a deliberately paced, ominously pulsing piece that builds tension with almost perverse patience. She also wrote the closing piece, “Inevitable,” a beatific ballad full of bent notes that bring to mind Hawaiian slack key playing (if Honolulu was annexed by Brooklyn). She also contributed the arpeggiated title track, which features some particularly luscious lines by Formanek. Like “Cleome,” a genus of flower, “Convallaria” takes its name from a plant, “the Lily of the Valley,” says Halvorson, “which is sweetly scented and highly poisonous, which I thought is a good description of Thumbscrew.”
The knife’s edge balance of beauty and danger suffuses the album. With Halvorson alternating between stinging single note runs and thick strummed chords, Fujiwara’s stutter stepping “Barn Fire Slum Brew” opens up for a sunbeam melodic passage by Formanek in the middle, sliding through the ominous atmosphere. The bassist is out front on Fujiwara’s “The Cardinal and the Weathervane,” a three-section piece that “definitely benefitted from the process of how we rehearsed,” Fujiwara says. “We played it every day for the two weeks, and kept refining it. I really like transitions that shift the perspective quickly.”
Fujiwara’s suggestively clattery trap work kicks off Formanek’s “Samsonian Rhythms,” a concise and slyly grooving piece that generates terrific momentum without increasing volume or changing tempo. With its portentous, grinding atmosphere, “Screaming Piha” might be the last tune on the album one would guess was inspired by a birdcall, but the piece is loosely based on the loud and distinctive call of the titular South American fowl. If Formanek is responsible for the album’s most forbidding tune, he also wrote the wackiest with “Danse Insensé,” with feels like a vintage promenade until Fujiwara’s cloppety rhumba-esque solo. By the time the trio comes back in, we’ve visited Havana, vaudeville and indeterminate destinations in between, a journey that captures Thumbscrew’s wit and WTF insouciance.
Part of what makes Thumbscrew such an extraordinary ensemble is that the trio has become one of the era’s signature rhythm sections. They’re the foundation for Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus, the hair-raising and ridiculously talent-laden large ensemble that recently released its debut recording, The Distance, on ECM. Formanek joined Halvorson on Tomas Fujiwara and The Hook Up’s third release, the critically hailed 2015 album After All Is Said (482 Music) with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and Brian Settles on tenor saxophone and flute. And Halvorson is in the midst of creating music for a new band featuring Fujiwara, Formanek, vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, a group “I really heard Thumbscrew for,” Halvorson says. “It one of my favorite rhythm sections, the power and energy and everything we create together. At this point, all of us have used the rhythm section as leaders.”
Halvorson and Fujiwara first started playing together in cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s Sextet. Among other bands, they also work together in the collective quartets Reverse Blue (with Chris Speed and Eivind Opsvik) and The Thirteenth Assembly (with Bynum and violist Jessica Pavone), and Mike Reed’s fascinating Sun Ra-inspired ensemble Living By Lanterns, which released the acclaimed 2012 Cuneiform album New Myth/Old Science. They also join forces on cellist Tomeka Reid’s debut album Tomeka Reid Quartet (Thirsty Ear) and with clarinetist Ben Goldberg on The Out Louds (Relative Pitch Records), a collective trio featuring their live-wire connection in a free improv setting.
Raised in Boston and based in Brooklyn, Mary Halvorson spent three formative years at Wesleyan University studying and playing with visionary composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, eventually performing on six of his recordings. Since graduating from Wesleyan in 2002, she’s become a ubiquitous presence in the circles where left-field jazz and improvised music intersect. Recognized as one of the most important and resourceful new voices on guitar to emerge in the past decade, she’s a doggedly idiosyncratic artist who “can define the character of an entire band’s tonal makeup without have to scream for attention,” says S. Victor Aaron.
An invaluable collaborator, Halvorson has been sought out by bandleaders such as Tim Berne, Curtis Hasselbring, Myra Melford, Jason Moran, Ches Smith, Joe Morris, Tom Rainey, Marc Ribot, and Trevor Dunn. She’s equally prolific as a bandleader in her own right. She’s developed a body of music for solo guitar (documented on the 2015 Firehouse 12 album Meltframe), and leads a combustible trio with bassist John Hebert and drummer Ches Smith. Her muscular quintet adds trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon to the mix, and more recently Halvorson expanded the quintet to a septet with tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik, a group featured on her 2013 release Illusionary Sea.
Born and raised in Boston, MA, Tomas Fujiwara studied with legendary drummer and teacher Alan Dawson for eight years before moving to New York at the age of 17. The Brooklyn-based drummer and composer was recently described by Troy Collins in Point of Departure as “a ubiquitous presence in the New York scene…an artist whose urbane writing is equal to his impressively nuanced drumming.”
Fujiwara is a key component in some of the most exciting music of the current generation, from his own bands Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up and The Tomas Fujiwara Trio (with Ralph Alessi and Brandon Seabrook) to his collaborative duo with Taylor Ho Bynum, and a diversity of creative sideman work with forward thinking peers like Matana Roberts, Tomeka Reid, Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed, Matt Bauder, Matt Mitchell, Amir ElSafar, and Josh Sinton’s Steve Lacy-centric Ideal Bread. He can also be found in revelatory projects with artists such as Anthony Braxton, Ben Goldberg, Benoit Delbecq, and Briggan Krauss.
Halvorson and Fujiwara connected with Formanek when he subbed in Bynum’s band in 2011, and the chemistry was so readily apparent they immediately started looking into performance opportunities as a trio. Since then their paths have continued to intersect in various creatively fruitful endeavors.
One of jazz’s definitive bassists since the 1980s, Michael Formanek has also made major contributions as a bandleader, composer and educator. Born in San Francisco, he first gained attention at 18 through his work with Tony Williams Lifetime, and spent much of the 1980s as a sideman with heavyweights such as Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Dave Liebman, Fred Hersch, and Attila Zoller. He made his recording debut as a leader in 1990 with Wide Open Spaces, an acclaimed album featuring saxophonist Greg Osby, violinist Mark Feldman, guitarist Wayne Krantz and drummer Jeff Hirshfield.
He spent much of the 1990s in various collaborations with Tim Berne, first recording on the 1992 trio session with Hirshfield, Loose Cannon. Formanek toured and recorded widely with the Berne’s band Bloodcount, while also leading his own septet with Berne, Dave Douglas, Marty Ehrlich, Kuumba Frank Lacy, Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Salvatore Bonafede. In addition to his work as a bandleader, Formanek has recorded prolifically as an accompanist on albums by Jane Ira Bloom, Uri Caine, James Emery, Lee Konitz, Kevin Mahogany, and the Mingus Big Band. Based in Baltimore since 2003, he is the director of the Peabody Jazz Orchestra and the jazz bass instructor at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music. He continues to perform and collaborate with a dazzling array of improvisers, but there’s no doubt that he’s found a home base with Halvorson and Fujiwara, whether they’re performing as Thumbscrew or some other ensemble.
“We’ve explored a lot of different music in these other projects,” Formanek says. “You get to a point where there’s a lot of familiarity, not with what’s going to happen but with possibilities and where we can push the envelope and do stuff we hadn’t done. Convallaria was such an opportunity to bring all those experiences into play. We’ve matured as a group. We’ve gotten to know each other much better, and I think that comes through in the music.”
Fertilized by the depth and diversity of various shared and independent collaborations, and nurtured by City of Asylum’s BNY Mellon Jazz Residency, a hothouse for musical creativity, in Convallaria, Thumbscrew’s creative synergy has come to full flower.