Mary Halvorson – guitar
Michael Formanek – bass
Tomas Fujiwara – drums
When it comes to writing reviews of musical performances, it would be pretty amateurish to simply say that “It was awesome!” or something like that. But that is certainly my knee jerk and most to-the-point reaction to shows like the one I experienced last night on the North Side. Simply put, Thumbscrew was incredible. I had posted earlier in the week about a workshop the trio had hosted on Tuesday night and how unique and insightful it was. In hindsight, it was a perfect little taste of what was to come in the form of a two hour performance that was the culmination of a two week residency hosted by City of Asylum.
The concert took place in the Alphabet City Tent, which is large white party tent tucked in between row houses, back yards, and alleyways on Pittsburgh’s North Side. With quite a few more chairs setup than there were at the workshop earlier in the week, it was really nice to see that most of them were full.
The trio kicked things off by playing a three or four pieces from their self titled debut recording and then transitioned into all new material that they had been working on during their two weeks here. For me, this created a real in-the-moment type of vibe, where the material was not only new to the audience but also for the musicians themselves. Overall, the music seemed really collaborative whereas there wasn’t a clear leader. All three members of Thumbscrew contribute compositions which makes for a nice variety of moods and styles.
One thing about jazz performances that I don’t always LOVE are the solos…probably not a popular opinion, I realize. But, by that, I mean the traditional formulaic routine where all of the musicians each take a turn while the others just sort of lay back until they are finished. I’ve just seen too many shows that follow this same predictable solo-clap, solo-clap, solo-clap formula and frankly I think it’s overused and kind of bland. So, I really like when a trio like Thumbscrew can work in a solo here and there without losing the group dynamic. It’s also nice when solos are unexpected and placed sort of sporadically so the listener might not see them coming. I realize that this is easier to accomplish in more of a “band” setting like this one, where each musician has a great deal of trust and familiarity with the others. There were actually only two moments that I recall when Halvorson and Formanek really laid back to allow drummer Tomas Fujiwara take a traditional drum solo…..which didn’t bother me at all because he’s a really innovative drummer and his solos absolutely crushed.
In summary, this was a really great evening of music. Everything felt really fresh and alive. The audience seemed very receptive and appreciative. The weather was great. And it was free. I don’t often hit up the merch table at shows, but after spending two free nights with this group in a week, I thought that buying their CD was the very least I could do to thank them. I really hope to see these three musicians perform again whether as Thumbscrew or with one of their other various projects. I also hope to see more events like this coming through Pittsburgh in the near future. City of Asylum said that this was their first jazz residency so I assume it won’t be the last.
The video above was one of the new pieces, a Halvorson composition entitled “Cleome”. Enjoy! (And go buy the album!!!)