As much as I love listening to Mary Halvorson play in her own quintet and septet outfits (like the one documented on her stellar 2013 album Illusionary Sea), there's something irresistible about hearing the jazz guitarist perform in a trio setting as she does on Thumbscrew's eponymous debut album with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. A larger ensemble demands an at times deferential approach on the participating musician's part when there are multiple solo voices in play, whereas any worry about overstepping one's bounds becomes a non-issue in Thumbscrew, where all three are in constant motion and equally responsible for the material being created in the moment. Listeners familiar with the names involved will recognize right away that the group pairs two rising stars with an experienced vet who brings an amazing set of experiences to the project. At the tender age of eighteen, Formanek was playing in Tony Williams Lifetime and in the years since has performed with figures like Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Dave Liebman, Jane Ira Bloom, Uri Caine, Lee Konitz, and Tim Berne. Formanek's also a formidable solo artist whose two recent ECM releases The Rub and Spare Change (2010) and Small Places (2012) received ample critical praise.
Thumbscrew is hardly the first time, incidentally, that the three have played together. Halvorson and Fujiwara are members of cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum's Sextet, and when Formanek subbed in Bynum's band in 2011 the chemistry between the three was so apparent they immediately began pursuing performance opportunities as a trio. One of the things that makes Thumbscrew's approach so appealing is that the conventional separation between lead soloist and rhythm section collapses and is replaced by a more democratic concept that gives equal weight to each contributor. Yes, the guitar is inarguably the primary melodic force, but the fluid interaction between the three musicians turns that detail into a less determining factor than it usually is. The distance between soloist and accompanist disappears, and Thumbscrew also manages to find that elusive sweet spot between formal structure and improvisation (in Fujiwara's own words, “All the improvising is within one of a number of forms, and there's no part where it's completely free”). That democratic idea extends to the compositions as well, with each musician contributing three pieces to the album.
Fujiwara's “Cheap Knock Off” inaugurates the set with a slippery tune whose spiky, Monk-ish angularity sounds anything but off-the-cuff. Here and elsewhere, Halvorson voices clean melodic lines that catch one's ear without resorting to excessive volume to do so. But the track is anything but restrained; in fact, by the midpoint, it roils with a ferocity and intensity one might be more inclined to associate with heavy metal than jazz per se. The brief “Nothing Doing” likewise captures the band's heavier side, though this time with a strong dose of funk, too. During the title track and “Goddess Sparkle,” the musicians' interactions are so elastically exercised, the material sounds at times as if it's on the verge of coming apart, yet their complex conversation carries on through all manner of twists and turns, each one responding to the other and supporting the music's unpredictable, second-by-second development. Improvisation is central to the group's sensibility, but there's structure as well, as exemplified by Formanek's “Buzzard's Breath,” which unfolds in accordance with a series of clearly delineated chord progressions—though not in such a way that the players seem in any way restricted by it.
The trio format is ideal for enabling the contributions of all three musicians to be heard with the utmost clarity. Yet while all three often play throughout a given piece, there are times, such as during Halvorson's “Fluid Hills in Pink,” when one steps aside to give the others even more room. In that case, the guitarist drops out following the loping intro to let Formanek and Fujiwara indulge in a frenetic dialogue before coming back in with a series of spidery up-and-down runs. “Still…Doesn't Swing,” on the other hand, includes a mid-song spotlight for the guitarist that provides a nice sampling of her adventurous style. She's a marvel throughout (check out her unhinged freewheeling on “Buzzard's Breath” as another example), but so too are Formanek and Fujiwara. That each stands out is clearly a testament to the project's “One for all, all for one” spirit.