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Tag: thumbscrew vanguard

Thumbscrew Put Their Signature Twist on Popular Standards and Obscurities

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.

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Thumbscrew Make Haunting, Thorny Music, and Play a Week at the Vanguard Starting July 17

The album cover shot for the first of Thumbscrew’s two simultaneous new releases, Ours, shows bassist Michael Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara standing motionless, backs to a wall, each holding a cactus. The two guys manage to half-conceal their grins, but Halvorson can’t. Does this ridiculous symbolism mean that they’re having a lot of fun playing thorny music? Hmmmmm……

The folks at the Vanguard, where the trio will be playing at 8:30 and 10 starting on July 17, seem to agree. You should see what they put on their calendar page: essentially, “This band won’t torture you, so if you like sounds that are just a wee, wee bit outside, come see them.” Halvorson – who’s finally getting the critical props she’s deserved for the past decade – has played there several times in the past, but this is the collaborative trio’s debut there.

The album – streaming at Cuneiform Records – opens with the aptly titled Snarling Joys, a furtively strolling, eerie quasi-bolero and a dead ringer for Big Lazy. Halvorson’s spidery noir evokes Steve Ulrich and Formanek’s deadpan, methodical basslines bring to mind Andrew Hall while Fujiwara finally abandons the racewalk for the shadows. It’s one of the best songs Halvorson has ever written.

Fujiwara’s Saturn Way has more spacious if similarly eerie chromatics set against a hypnotically circling web of polyrhythms, decaying to a sepulchrally flickering tableau, Halvorson’s funereal belltones hanging overhead. Formanek’s Cruel Heartless Bastards bookends a a dissociative round robin with grimly insistent waves of late 70s King Crimson, Halvorson painting a vast, echoey grayscale as Fujiwara tumbles and crashes

Smoketree, another Halvorson tune, alternates three themes. The trio open with spare, moody pastoral jazz, Formanek pulling the band into stalking King Crimson territory again before Halvorson hits her pedal for warpy, watery weirdness. Thumbprint, also by Halvorson, could be Gabor Szabo covering a Monk swing tune with an sardonically evil rhythm section: her wry quotes and space lounge sonics build contrast over Formanek’s loopy hooks and Fujiwara’s shifty shuffles.

The first of two consecutive Fujiwara tunes, One Day gives Halvorson a misty backdrop for desolate, spacious phrasing but also some hilarious, thinly cached quotes, Formanek adding simmering and then punchy melody when not harmonizing uneasily with the guitar. The second, Rising Snow wafts sparely and morosely toward waltz territory until Fujiwara hits some steady but impossible-to-figure syncopation – this also could be Big Lazy.

The album concludes with two Formanek numbers. The first is titled Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle). It veers away from catchy, circular chromatic riffs as the rhythm falls away to a drifting wildfire, and then makes a slight return. Unconditional, the final cut, is a funhouse mirror version of a balmy ballad, lowlit by Halvorson’s distantly menacing tremolo-picking and Fujiwara’s cymbal drizzle.

Interplay and Halvorson’s usual sense of humor notwithstanding, this a pretty dark record – and it might be the best album of 2018. And there’s a companion release, Theirs, a covers collection. Watch this space for more about that one before the Vanguard stand starts.