Thumbscrew: Ours/Theirs (Cuneiform)

Review of two albums—one of originals and one of covers—by the avant-garde trio

Cover of Thumbscrew album Ours
Cover of Thumbscrew album Ours
Cover of Thumbscrew album <I>Theirs</I>
Cover of Thumbscrew album Theirs

This gimmick has been trotted out before—an album of originals and an album of covers, released by the same artist on the same day—but rarely has it been executed so satisfyingly. Ours and Theirs, from the avant-improv trio Thumbscrew, feel like two halves of a whole.

Mary Halvorson is emerging as the most potent and innovative of today’s jazz guitarists, and bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara have provided the platform for some of her best work. Though her sound is unmistakable, full of unanticipated harmonies and bent notes, this is a three-headed band. Groupthink outranks soloing. That goes as much for their reverential, languid take on Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” as it does for Formanek’s hard-rocking “Cruel Heartless Bastards.”

Each member contributes three compositions to Ours, and while the styles vary, the group’s angular, discomfiting aesthetic keeps everything cohesive. Halvorson’s “Smoketree” starts out innocently as she and Formanek exchange lines, but when Fujiwara enters with skittering touches, Halvorson warps contrapuntal notes. She does it, too, throughout Fujiwara’s “Rising Snow,” whose pretty melody is nearly obscured by all the deliberately awkward improvisation. On Formanek’s odd-metered “Words That Rhyme With Spangle (angle bangle dangle jangle mangel mangle strangle tangle wangle wrangle),” they let loose and get silly.

Theirs includes unexpected and inspired choices. Benny Golson’s bebop staple “Stablemates” melts out of shape. Herbie Nichols’ “House Party Starting,” a swing already full of dissonance, acquires more. The rhythm of Julio de Caro’s tango “Buen Amigo” is eviscerated, while that of “East of the Sun” is set free. Brazilian guitarist Jacob do Bandolim’s “Benzinho,” on the other hand, is treated as a faithful samba (until the very last note, anyway), and the cheesy hit “Scarlet Ribbons (for Her Hair)” gets a tender reading that belies its sappy origins.

Buy or download Ours on Amazon!