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THUMBSCREW – MULTICOLORED MIDNIGHT (2022)/ NEVER IS ENOUGH (2023)/ MARY HALVORSON – AMARYLLIS / BELL

Cuneiform press releases are unfailingly helpful, and the description of Thumbscrew’s music as “like a reverse black hole radiating brilliant constellations of overlapping ensembles” is most apposite for a relative newcomer like me. In existence since 2012, innovative jazz guitarist Mary Halvorson is joined by bassist Michael Formanek and drummer/ vibraphonist Tomas Fujiwara on eleven pieces of composed, part-composed and improvised music. Fujiwara’s vibes were also heard on Thumbscrew’s 2020 celebration of ANTHONY BRAXTON’s 75th birthday.


There are five Formanek compositions on the album: these include a catchy composed album opener, ‘I’m A Senator’, on which Halvorson unleashes her deft single note runs; ‘Fidgety’ starts as a solo with some double bass electronics; ‘Capsicum Annum’ is an enjoyable melodic piece. Fujiwara’s name goes on three pieces including ‘Song for Mr Humphries’ (ROGER HUMPHRIES who played on HORACE SILVER’s seminal album “Song for My Father” in 1965) and “Future Reruns and Nostalgia” which is a reflection on COVID with a ‘for whom the bell tolls’ touch in the vibes and some stormy bowed double bass. Halvorson contributes the title track with strummed chords and an angular melody inspired by the sound of a skipping LP apparently! ‘Swirling Lives’ is described in the press release as “an almost chamber jazz”, with a playful vibe, the three players taking on the melody in their own distinctive ways.


Fujiwara’s ‘Camp Easy’ is an elegant composition that opens “Never is Enough”, one to return to time and time again – I love the guitar sounds on this one. ‘Sequel to Sadness’, a Halvorson composition features one of the most interesting and energetic drum solos I have heard in a long while. Another Fujiwara piece ‘Through a Window’ is an impressionistic piece inspired by a hotel view in Sarajevo. In a break from convention Formanek plays electric bass on the title track which concerns “the ever-present feeling of being held captive by the insanity of the last four years of whatever this has been.”


Thumbscrew’s music is intricate and cerebral, but not over so as the messages it conveys touch the listener: it may take a few listens to penetrate its depths but the journey is worth it. A warning though: Mary Halvorson’s guitar style is far from conventional: it sounds positively futuristic, and her pitch bending sound give the impression of tape slippage probably due to her placing one mike at the amp and another at the strings. “Amaryllis” and “Belladonna”, two of her most highly acclaimed albums have been re-released as a double vinyl. On this Halvorson leads a quintet with trumpet, trombone, bass (Fujiwara) and drums: some of the guitar runs are exquisite as the performers lead a complicated musical dance of counterpoint (complimentary but independent melodies played at the same time) and countermelody (a subordinate melody played alongside the principal). There are suggestions of modern classical music as well as jazz and PHILIP GLASS and STRAVINSKY came to mind.


“Belladonna” is guitar with the Mikos String Quartet. I have a slight leaning towards this one of the two. In the interests of brevity, I refer the reader to Andy Cash’s comprehensive review of the music at Pitchfork. I would only add that there are elements of rock and singer songwriter in her music, as Halvorson discusses in a recent Jazzwise magazine interview: these include ROBERT WYATT and ELLIOT SMITH.

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