I sometimes find guitar-bass-drums combinations in jazz to be rather risky, simply because the guitar can’t quite fill as much space as, say, a piano or saxophone, or at least not without overwhelming the other instruments or leading to a sort of macho blow-out in which drummer and guitarist end up fighting for room over an increasingly beleaguered bassist. To my mind, the best jazz guitar albums have always been fleshed out with other elements, such as in the case of classics such as Sonny Sharrock’s Black Woman or Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue. So, I was almost tempted to expect this new trio to be somewhat on a hiding to nothing, except for one key factor: the guitarist in question is Mary Halvorson, perhaps the instrument’s greatest and most innovative ambassador on the modern American jazz scene.
In Thumbscrew, Halvorson regularly shines, whether when peppering the air with flurries of bird-call-like pizzicato notes (notably on the opener “Cheap Knock-Off”), leaning into moody low-end chords or allowing her guitar to dominate the sound space via open-string drones. One could even argue that she dominates the rhythm section occasionally subordinating itself to make room for her various interjections. Her real talent, however, and the essential force of Thumbscrew, is in the way she breaks out of jazz conventions and delves subtly but effectively into new realms. When her notes become more forceful and her chords more robust, the music ofThumbscrew veers closely to the territory of rock, with echoes of Larks Tongues In Aspic-era King Crimson or the post-rock scene in nearby Montreal. Of course, the rhythm section plays a huge part in this dexterity.
Michael Formanek struggles the most to impose himself when things get loud, but his slides down the neck of his upright bass combine with drops of guitar feedback from Halvorson to create a rambunctious haze of strings.During the album’s best moments, it’s a heady cocktail. Tomas Fujiwara, meanwhile, is an exciting drummer whose supple meanderings on the toms and forceful drives bind the whole album together, providing the bedrock for Halvorson’s thematic shifts.
Aside from Halvorson’s occasional Robert Fripp-like excursions, perhaps the comparison with avant-prog like King Crimson (or even, at a push, Van der Graaff Generator) works because the tracks on Thumbscrew are compositions rather than the improvisations often preferred by modern new jazz performers. All three musicians have established improv credentials, so it’s a bold step to try and explore a different facet, and one that almost certainly gives them more leeway to cross into other styles and even genres (although I swear I can detect a minute degree of ad libbing at play).
The problem with this approach, however, is two-fold. First, with such a limited palette to draw from, instrumentally, the tracks occasionally blend together, with few stand-out individual compositions, so it’s left to individual moments of brilliance (mostly from Halvorson) to really grab the attention, as on the Latin-tinged and incrementally molten and punkish “Still… Doesn’t Swing”. Equally, with nine tracks running at 56 minutes, Thumbscrew could have done with a bit more editing. This album lays down some exciting foundations, and I can’t wait to hear how they build on it, but it’s also proof that even oodles of talent and promise don’t necessarily coalesce into a wonderful finished product.