Mary Halvorson (guitar), Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) play serious music but don’t take themselves too seriously. A Fujiwara composition, inspired by the angular writing on Formanek’s recent albums, has the self-deprecating title “Cheap Knock Off.” The bassist contributes a piece called “Still … Doesn’t Swing” that begins with jaunty brushwork and veers into a free tornado. Even the group name is something of a sendup: Thumbscrew implies a more intense form of free improvisation that these three could easily deliver, yet, with a few exceptions, this music often relies on subtle interaction, lower volumes and expansive compositions.
All three musicians have reputations that precede them, as both leaders and support players. But Thumbscrew was created as a composer’s forum, and the band takes each player in new directions. During Formanek’s “iThumbscrew,” they sound as if they’re soloing on top of one another, but by the end clarity emerges from the chaos. Halvorson’s thoroughly structured “Fluid Hills in Pink” leaves room for an inquisitive bass solo and eventually segues into “Nothing Doing,” 81 seconds of tense rock courtesy of Fujiwara’s pen. Formanek’s “Buzzard’s Breath” is built on a traditional AABA structure that he skews with surprising choices in chords and harmonic detail. Everyone plays with abandon but Halvorson in particular seems to have grown as a soloist. Her use of electronic pitch-shifting has evolved from warped punctuation into a distinct aspect of how she shapes her thoughts.