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Thumbscrew: The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform)

A review of the trio's album celebrating the composer's 75th birthday

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Thumbscrew: The Anthony Braxton Project
The cover of The Anthony Braxton Project by Thumbscrew

For a lot of people, the distinctive style of composer and multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton is obscured either by the geometric diagrams that he uses to title his works or by the ambition of some of his longer, more recent operas. Yet Braxton has composed dozens of great, well, tunes, and many of them reflect his intense interest in the music of Paul Desmond, Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, and other likeminded innovators.  

As part of the celebrations marking Braxton’s 75th birthday, the members of Thumbscrew—bassist Michael Formanek, drummer/vibraphonist Tomas Fujiwara, and guitarist Mary Halvorson—spent a long afternoon combing the archives at the Tri-Centric Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to his work and legacy. The results can be heard on this recording, an apt follow-up to the trio’s superb 2018 release Theirs, which featured covers of their cornerstone inspirations, from Herbie Nichols to Benny Golson to Stanley Cowell and beyond.

The repertoire is a reminder of Braxton’s diverse career. The album opens with “Composition No. 52,” a limber piece performed by his stellar quartet of the early ’90s. “Composition No. 68” has the lyrical abstraction and austerity of Braxton’s 1968 debut opus 3 Compositions of New Jazz. Halvorson’s dense, pithy solo is a highlight on “Composition No. 274.” Fujiwara’s vibes on “Composition No. 35” yield a lighter feel, while Formanek’s arco work heightens the drama of “Composition No. 150.” 

As is often the case with trios of musicians who lead their own ensembles, Thumbscrew melds into a more intuitive unit with each new recording, both highlighting scintillating differences and insightful common ground between the players. Together they make the case for many more explorations of Braxton’s catalog; it’s long overdue for an examination this enthusiastic. 


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