For the last four weeks or so, since its release on the Cuneiform label on January 21st, I have kept returning to the eponymous debut CD by Thumbscrew, a collective trio of Mary Halvorson, guitar, Michael Formanek, double bass, and Tomas Fujiwara, drums. It’s a consistently great album, offering up music that collides warmly responsive interplay with infectiously kiltered grooves. The opening track, a Fujiwara head called “Cheap Knock Off,” alludes texturally– you can listen for yourself and decide if this makes aural sense – to the early John Scofield trio with Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum, or, given the bell-like tone at times of Mary Halvorson’s guitar, even to the Jim Hall trio of the mid 1970s with Terry Clarke and Don Thompson.
But – despite the title – this is hardly derivative or imitative; it’s more of a music keenly aware of precedents and precursors but pushing forward along the leading edge of its own present tense.What emerges sonically in these nine tracks is the trio’s shared practice of bending and unfolding time; they co-create in each piece a motile amalgam of historicity and futurity, gesturing (at least to my ears) at a rich set of musical antecedents from the jangling two-steps of Son House to the poly-intervallic melodies of Henry Threadgill, while simultaneously opening their improvised lines outward, palpably reaching, as Robert Browning once put it, to exceed their grasp. Michael Formanek’s big tone and rhythmic conception remind me of Johnny Dyani or Henri Texier: what’s remarkable is how he – and how the whole trio – manage to synch up with such metrical acuity (listen to those unisons) while driving so fiercely forward, right on top of the beat, meeting it head on, ahead. This trio, tightly together, gives the impression of an elastic looseness, a surge and release that’s a hallmark of the best kind of collaborative improvising. For instance, the toe-tapping shuffle of Fujiwara’s stick-and-brushwork on Formanek’s “Still . . . Doesn’t Swing” gives way to a raucously dehiscent free improvisation, as if the trio had momentarily lost its footing, only to reassert its cogency as melody at a slightly slowed tempo, transformed and tugged apart and then refolded onto itself again through Halvorson’s taffy-pull lines. Countable time comes unglued, seems to stretch and then reasserts its urgencies. Thumbscrew offers a music that moves, and that moves us along with them, listening: theirs is a remarkable and important record.