New Energy Music: Thumbscrew Live at The Stone (14 Aug 2013)

In the 1990s, bassist William Parker, with saxophonist David S. Ware and many other collaborators, pioneered a fresh wave of creative, improvised music often referred to as “energy music.” Its hallmarks were (and are, since it is indeed, still alive) intense interactions between musicians in an ensemble often in freely improvised or largely improvised settings.  Take, for example, the work Parker did with the Collective 4tet (Live at Crescent and Synopsis are two of their most exciting recordings): the band members play off of each other, sometimes for extended periods, reacting to each other with incredible intensity. The 1990s energy music was a music that one not only heard, but felt, and lived as it coursed through ones body. As Thumbscrew exhibited last night at The Stone, the latest in a number of performances since their first outing in March 2012, they are creating a new form of energy music. And while Thumbscrew’s music may arrive at a similar electricity in its impact, the musicians follow a very different path in getting there.

Thumbscrew was formed in the Fall of 2011, after a chance encounter between the three when bassist Michael Formanek subbed in a performance by the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet at Le Poisson Rouge on September 11th of that year. Ho Bynum’s long-time collaborators, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, found an immediate connection to the bassist’s playing and soon after formed the collaborative trio Thumbscrew. Formanek, Halvorson, and Fujiwara each may be counted among the most versatile and daring players of their respective instruments. The bassist is especially versatile in his playing, with a style that can be light-footed and nimble one minute, and dark and brooding the next. Halvorson shapes her sound in the moment via a line six pedal, which she controls via an expression pedal, making countless split second decisions, often amidst complex compositions that together produce a unique voice on guitar. Fujiwara is precise in his approach to the drum set without any hint of hesitation and his waterfall of percussive intensity ebbs and flows in a way that presents constant opportunities for interaction with his collaborators.

The compositional talents of the three members are an equal match to their playing. Formanek has received the rare “Masterpiece” rating from Downbeat for each of his last two records. Halvorson and Fujiwara have also released highly-acclaimed records under their own names. Halvorson writes music that is technically interesting and innovative, while also being highly accessible and emotionally driving. Fujiwara writes deep music with images of history, memory, family, and personal experience woven together into emotionally evocative tapestries of sound. But in the setting of Thumbscrew, each of these talented artists has done some of their most exciting work to date: each member of the band contributes pieces to their collective that play to the talents of the other members. These musicians have a rare understanding of each other and when they set to the task of creating music together, they embrace the strengths that each brings to the bandstand. The results are fascinating: this is cutting edge contemporary music built on compositional depth and improvisational expertise with a strong, cohesive core. Call it fluid iron: powerful, yet flexible in its outlook, capable of an electrifying impact.

Thumbscrew played two full sets of music, opening with one of Halvorson’s compositions, “Line to Create Madness.” This song is, in many ways, a sampling of the band’s approach: a semblance of structure is set down in the opening lines in driving fashion. Then, in ever-broadening trajectories, the band plunges into abstract impressions of the underlying structure, while interacting and reacting to each other with absolute precision. The first piece highlights Halvorson doing exactly this on guitar, building tension, and eventually melding into swirling bass lines built around Fujiwara’s percussion. The second piece, “Buzzard’s Breath,” juxtaposed this with a tight, driving style. The third song, “Nothing Doing,” opened with an extended drum solo–one of the highlights of the night–that was intricate, varied, and captivating throughout. “Falling Too Far” was an expose in the use of tension in music–Halvorson highlighted here and Formanek had a brilliant, long solo that kept the music riveting and in the moment. The first set closed with a freely improvised piece that was a treat. After a few minutes of building, each was responding to the others in interconnected intensity, while building, diminishing, surging.

The second set picked up where the first one ended: it elevated the level of fierce interaction and included some of the most exciting compositions yet produced by the members. The title piece, “iThumbscrew,” is a piece with a robust sound that takes its time to explore a number of variations off the central theme. The final three pieces, “Fluid Hills in Pink,” “Still … Doesn’t Swing,” and “Goddess Sparkle,” each pushed the energy level even higher. The first of these grew steadily by building a sort of narrative tension that eventually burst and dissipated into haunting silence, leaving several of the captivated audience members gasping. The final piece is among the group’s most emotionally engaging compositions, almost overwhelming in its intensity and scope of vision.

Each piece this band performs is a journey, often beginning in a grounded universe that we all can recognize. Then we are transformed by the creative power of Halvorson, Formanek, and Fujiwara, passing through aural spaces that show a hint of the known surrounded by a sea of new imaginings.

Thumbscrew’s first record will be released in January. But, if you can’t wait that long, get out and see them tonight for another two sets at The Stone, 8 and 10 pm.

Set List (14 Aug 2013)

1st set

  1. Line to Create Madness (Halvorson)
  2. Buzzard’s Breath (Formanek)
  3. Nothing Doing (Fujiwara)
  4. Falling to Far (Halvorson)
  5. Cheap Knock Off (Fujiwara)
  6. Untitled [free improvisation]

2nd set

  1. iThumbscrew (Formanek)
  2. Fluid Hills in Pink (Halvorson)
  3. Still … Doesn’t Swing (Formanek)
  4. Goddess Sparkle (Fujiwara)

Selected Discography

  • Mary Halvorson Quintet, Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12, 2012)
  • Mary Halvorson Quintet, Saturn Sings (Firehouse 12, 2010)
  • Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up, The Air Is Different (482 Music, 2012)
  • Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up, Actionspeak (482 Music, 2010)
  • Michael Formanek, The Rub and Spare Change (ECM, 2010)
  • Michael Formanek, Small Places (ECM, 2010)

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