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Thumbscrew: Multicolored Midnight (Cuneiform)

A review of the trio's album that delves into unpredictable and surprising terrain while maintaining a breezy buoyancy

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Thumbscrew: Multicolored Midnight (Cuneiform)
The cover of Multicolored Midnight by Thumbscrew

Although Thumbscrew began life as a collaboration between three of the most singular voices in modern jazz—guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara—it has evolved to take on a collective identity all its own. No matter the complexity and eccentricity of their compositions, a distinct sense of playfulness permeates their sound. Between Halvorson’s slippery coils, Formanek’s trampoline-like elasticity, and Fujiwara’s elusive rhythmic juggling, it’s the avant garde as seen through a funhouse mirror.

Multicolored Midnight, like its last several predecessors, was developed during a three-week residency at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum. The bandmates write individually but develop the music together, lending the album’s 11 tracks a deceptively sprightly cohesiveness. In their ability to delve into unpredictable and surprising terrain while maintaining a breezy buoyancy, these tunes feel like deep, probing conversations between old friends sharing a similarly skewed sense of humor.

Halvorson’s lines snake through the robust, bounding grooves of Formanek’s “I’m a Senator!” and take jagged, meandering pathways to lead into Fujiwara’s propulsive “Song for Mr. Humphries.” The guitarist’s own pieces for the album take on an almost pop-song guise; the raucous storm clouds that begin “Survival Fetish” part midway to reveal singing lines distorted by Halvorson’s trademark delay pedal to resemble a warped record. The title track gives Formanek’s supple melodicism free rein over Halvorson’s jangly riffs and Fujiwara’s midtempo beat. Each Formanek piece is a distinctive object, from the psychedelic distortions of “Fidgety” to the jaunty swagger of “Should Be Cool.” Fujiwara’s vibraphone playing has taken on increased importance in the band, showcased on three tracks here: Formanek’s airy, texture-rich “Shit Changes,” Fujiwara’s dream-logic “Future Reruns and Nostalgia,” and Halvorson’s hypnotic “Swirling Lives.” Experimentation should always be this much fun.

Learn more about Multicolored Midnight on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.