If you count guitarist Mary Halvorson’s latest ferociously good album Code Girl, she and the Thumbscrew rhythm section – bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara – have put out three albums in about the past six months. That’s a Guided By Voices pace. It’s not likely that they’ll pass the Ohioans in terms of mammoth output, but by any standard, the trio collective are on a rare creative tear. They have two brand-new albums out – the first, a collection of originals simply titled Ours, is streaming at Cuneiform Records and got the full treatment on this page a couple of days ago. Today’s installment focuses on the second of those releases, Theirs, a covers collection also up at Cuneiform. The band will be airing out all of those tunes at their upcoming stand at the Vanguard, with sets at 8:30 and 10ish starting on July 17.
Every good musician knows that if you’re going to cover somebody else’s song, you either have to do it completely differently, or do it better than the original. And if a song’s worth covering at all, that can be a tall order. What’s most surprising about this playlist is how trad it is. You might think that these three veterans of the New York progressive jazz scene might use an opportunity like this to bigup one of their pals like Kris Davis, or do one of Tom Rainey’s crazy charts. Nope. Instead, this is three of the most formidable players in all of jazz at the top of their game, putting a characteristically individualistic, often iconoclastic spin on a mix of well-known and somewhat more obscure material.
The main difference between the originals and covers albums is night and day – more or less. The covers are shorter and funnier, and Halvorson more often than not plays them with a cleaner tone. The first is Stablemates, by Benny Golson: both Halvorson and Formanek get their offkilter EFX going for a space lounge feel as Fujiwara gives it a low-key, peppery swing.
Halvorson plays tiptoeing serial killer, making jaunty noir out of Benzinho, a Jacob Do Bandolim samba. The guitarist lets the chromatics of Herbie Nichols’ House Party Starting linger a little more over the rhythm section’s muted swing: Fujiwara’s terse breaks and sardonically skipping phrasing elevate this kind of material far beyond its dancefloor origins without losing that groove.
A gazillion bands have tackled Jimmy Rowles’ brooding classic The Peacocks; Thumbscrew’s downcast dirge might be the best of all of them, Halvorson parsing the melody sparsely over Formanek’s similarly judicious accents and Fujiwara’s misty brushwork. After that masterpiece, they blow off some steam with a frantic, messy leap into a loose, highly improvised take of East of the Sun.
Their remake of the schlocky waltz Scarlet Ribbons has a brushy, straight-up 4/4 Fujiwara beat, Halvorson leaving her warpy envelope pedal on for maximum surrealism: it’s actually quite pretty despite itself. Buen Amigo, by Argentine composer Julio De Caro gets a sparse Big Lazy tango noir treatment: Fujiwara’s offcenter accents here are one of the album’s high points.
The group’s choice of Dance Cadaverous as a Wayne Shorter cover makes a lot of sense in context: it’s more expansive than the original, both rhythmically and melodically, Helvorson gently tremolo-picking her way into an increasingly thorny thicket. The album’s last two tracks are waltzes. Stanley Cowell’s Effi is the album’s most trad cut, with just enough warpy guitar sonics to add a little disquiet. Weer is een dag voorbij (Stormy Day), by the clown prince of Dutch jazz, Instant Composers Pool founder Misha Mengelberg, is the album’s enigmatic, bittersweet conclusion, Halvorson and then Formanek quietly reveling in its subtle shift into the shadows over Fujiwara’s snowy brushwork. Overall, these may not be quite as darkly magical as Thumbscrew’s new originals, but they’re pretty close.