Tomas Fujiwara + Thoth Trio + Thumbscrew = AMAZING Weekend!!!

This past weekend in Pittsburgh was some sort of anomaly or like a glitch in the matrix.  Not only do incredible jazz shows rarely happen around here these days, they almost never take place within one 48 hour period. But this was the case here beginning with a Mary Holvorson solo set on Friday and culminating in a killer Sunday night finale by Halvorson’s trio, Thumbscrew.

Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum had brought in a bunch of incredible musicians and poets over the last few weeks to celebrate the opening of their new Alphabet City mixed use venue in the North Side. Unfortunately, the building is not yet finished.  But, fortunately for all of us music lovers, the shows weren’t cancelled but were just moved to their outdoor Alphabet City Tent.  Knowing that there was no way I’d be able to attend everything happening this weekend, I chose to skip the Mary Halvorson solo set (as well as Rakim at VIA Fest).  I’m sure it was amazing but solo sets are not really my favorite type of shows and I knew I’d get to see her play on the next two evenings.

Saturday night’s show was by drummer Tomas Fujiwara and his project called The Hook Up.  The Hook Up consists of Tomas along with Michael Formanek on bass, Mary Halvorson on guitar (all of which are also in Thumbscrew) along with saxophonist Brian Settles and special guest Dave Ballou on trumpet.  This show was nothing short of amazing.  I really enjoyed the variety of moods and energies throughout the set.  At one point early in the set they broke it down to just drums and sax.  It was so intimate and beautiful that a nearby cricket’s chirping became part of the piece.  For me it was truly one of those, “THIS is why is love live music!” moments.  After the show, a friend I was with said something about this being one of the best performances of any kind that he had ever seen.  Pretty bold statement but certainly hard to argue with.

The next day, after watching the first half of the Steelers’ game, I took a ride out to Dormont in the South Hills.  I lived near there several years ago but hardly ever go back these days.  So, just the drive out there was kind of a surreal experience. It takes a good reason for me to make the journey through the Liberty Tubes and on this day, the reason was to see my favorite band in Pittsburgh, Thoth Trio, play at the Hollywood Theater.  This event had the trio playing a live soundtrack to some of Buster Keaton‘s silent films.  To be honest, I would have gone out there for Thoth alone.  Due to the Thunderbird being remodeled, they’ve hardly played out at all lately. But I was blown away by how entertaining this show was overall.  My initial focus, possibly because of the great acoustics in the room, was almost entirely on the band to the point where I found myself closing my eyes and just listening…only to realize that a movie was being shown on the screen.  Then there were moments when I kind of got lost in the film.  It was truly the kind of blissful, escapist experience that I look for in a show.  The kind of thing where you can get completely removed from reality for an hour or so.

Somehow, after all of this, there was still another show to go to.  Thumbscrew (Halvorson, Formanek, Fujiwara) were closing City of Asylum’s month of jazz and poetry with a set at 7:00.  As I’ve written about here before, the trio took part in a residency last year where they stayed in Pittsburgh for two weeks writing, performing, and recording music. So it was very cool to get to see them revisit the exact place where their most recent album, Convallaria (Cuneiform Records 2016), was written and to perform several of those tunes again. I knew what to expect from this one and they certainly delivered. I’d really like to thank the people from City of Asylum, all of the musicians I just mentioned, and the people that book the Hollywood Theater in Dormont for a wonderful and unforgettable weekend.





Thumbscrew – “Sampsonian Rhythms” from Convallaria LP


Back in July of last year, thanks to City of Asylum, Thumbscrew spent some time in Pittsburgh to write, record, and perform new music.  The result of that residency is an upcoming LP entitled Convallaria which is due out next month on Cuneiform Records.

Cuneiform posted this track a few days ago which is named after Pittsburgh’s Sampsonia Way on the North Side, which is where the band stayed when they were here.  The track sounds great and I’m really looking forward to hearing the rest of this record.

Thumbscrew – 7.5.15 – Alphabet City Tent, Pittsburgh, PA

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!!!)

Thumbscrew Workshop – 6.30.15 – City of Asylum – North Side, Pittsburgh, PA

ts_6.30.15_3The jazz trio Thumbscrew is currently in the middle of a 2 week long residency hosted by Pittsburgh’s City Of Asylum.  During their stay, the group has been composing, rehearsing and recording for what will be a new record scheduled for early 2016 on Cuneiform Records.  Last night, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara held a free workshop that was open to the public, in which they played a few pieces and discussed all things music.  The event was super insightful and gave a great glimpse into the minds of these incredible musicians/artists/composers. The workshop was open to the public but there was a limit of 30 people.  The minute I found out about it a few weeks back I immediately RSVP’d online thinking that there was no way I would get in.  Well I did get in and and, quite surprisingly, I don’t think there were even 25 people there.  I fully expected to see some familiar faces at this, but strangely I did not.

I’ve never really attended anything like this before where you can just ask the musicians anything in such a small and intimate setting. They discussed things like composition, form, the characteristics they look for in other musicians, their reaction to audiences, influences, gear, etc etc.  All three of them seemed really comfortable, sociable and eager to share their knowledge, opinions and past experiences.  They also played a few tunes including a brand new piece that they plan to record here in Pittsburgh this weekend.

On Sunday evening, Thumbscrew will be playing for free in the same location, which is called the Alphabet City Tent on 318 Sampsonia Way.  The show is free but, like the workshop, you need to RSVP online to save a space.  I’m really looking forward to it.  It’s certain to be an incredible night of music.  I do hope more people make it out, because this music deserves to be heard.  I’ll also be looking forward to the upcoming record especially since I got a little glimpse into the process and their mindset while it’s being written and recorded.