Essential New Music: Thumbscrew’s “Never Is Enough”

The second law of thermodynamics is invaluable when you want to understand why things keep coming apart. But if you seek explanation for the burgeoning creativity of Thumbscrew, turn to the first, which says that energy cannot be created or destroyed in a closed system.

Guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek and percussionist Tomas Fujiwara all maintain busy schedules outside of Thumbscrew, making music that differs substantially from what they play as a trio. Each musician is a composer of unique character. They have diverse temperaments as improvisers, and they all lead groups quite different from Thumbscrew. And Halvorson, Formanek and Fujiwara aren’t shy about taking on the outside material from such disparate sources as Argentine tango bandleader Julio De Caro and cosmically inclusive thinker Anthony Braxton. So, whenever they reconvene, Thumbscrew has plenty of new notions to pass around.

One consequence of all this new information coming in is that Thumbscrew puts a lot of music out. Never Is Enough is the combo’s sixth album since 2014. While it was recorded at the same time as its predecessor, last year’s The Anthony Braxton Project, its cohesiveness puts paid to any notions that it’s a collection of leftovers. The music flows naturally from one idea to the next, both within and between tracks.

The changes come dizzyingly fast on Fujiwara’s “Through An Open Window,” but each intricate segment has a bit of breathing room built in, and each transition feels quite unforced. It’s followed by Halvorson’s ballad “Heartdrop,” which toggles between extravagantly slippery passages and a romantic theme that sounds like it could’ve flowed from the fingers of Django Reinhardt. Then comes Formanek’s “Emojis Have Consequences,” whose unison statements set up singing bass and guitar solos that turn out to be great opportunities to listen to Fujiwara’s inventive drumming.

An essential aspect of this trio’s chemistry lies in each musician’s willingness to expend so much creative energy making the others sound better. Thumbscrew’s process is endlessly renewing, which is why it has to be said that while Never Is Enough will amply repay the time you spend listening to it, it’s still not enough.

—Bill Meyer