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Jazz trio Thumbscrew celebrates 10 years together on 'Multicolored Midnight'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

The first time the three members of Thumbscrew all played together, when bassist Michael Formanek subbed in a band with Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, they instantly clicked and resolved to make a band. Their new album celebrates 10 years together. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUMBSCREW'S "SONG FOR MR. HUMPHRIES")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: The trio Thumbscrew from their new album "Multicolored Midnight" on the Cuneiform label. From the beginning, Thumbscrew have had a thing for off-kilter rhythms and shifting accents. Thundering bassist Michael Formanek and surefooted drummer Tomas Fujiwara can make lopsided patterns sound offhand and simpler cycles deceptively slippery. It makes for roving, restless rhythm, good stimulus for a soloist.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUMBSCREW'S "I'M A SENATOR")

WHITEHEAD: This is the singular guitarist Mary Halvorson's third album of 2022. She released a pair under her own name last spring, including a particularly fine "Belladonna" for guitar and string quartet. Halvorson combines a traditional jazz guitarist pick-heavy attack with sparing but pivotal use of electronics to bend pitches and to split certain notes in two as if they're shredding unstable subatomic particles.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUMBSCREW'S "I'M A SENATOR")

WHITEHEAD: Top guitarists do inspire imitators, but no one I've heard sounds like Mary Halvorson. Thumbscrew do the punchy stuff so well they could stick to that. But this is no one-trick band especially now that Tomas Fujiwara sometimes swaps out his drums for vibraphone. That opens up the texture. And bassist Michael Formanek might pick up his bow to play low, moaning melody to emphasize that sonic expanse. The trio becomes a chamber ensemble.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUMBSCREW'S "FUTURE RERUNS AND NOSTALGIA")

WHITEHEAD: So the music's not all about showcasing guitar. Vibraphone, in place of drums, gives Thumbscrew a bright, instrumental color to play with. And it's not like they need drums to drive them on. They're self-propelled.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUMBSCREW'S "S*** CHANGES")

WHITEHEAD: A decade on with seven records to their credit, Thumbscrew sound like they're still growing even as they consolidate their gains. Sometimes, the trio'll play music by other jazz composers from Benny Golson to Anthony Braxton. But they do best, as on the new "Multicolored Midnight," when they play their own material, idiosyncratic tunes to fit an idiosyncratic band.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUMBSCREW'S "MULTICOLORED MIDNIGHT")

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Multicolored Midnight," the new CD by the band Thumbscrew. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the musical biopic parody "Weird: The Al Yankovic Story" starring Daniel Radcliffe. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RARE EARTH SONG, "HEY BIG BROTHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.