Essential New Music: Thumbscrew’s “Multicolored Midnight”

“Shit Changes,” proclaims one of the tunes that bassist Michael Formanek wrote for Multicolored Midnight, but Thumbscrew persists. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider that the trio has been around for a decade, during which time it has released seven albums on the same label. In the jazz world, it’s pretty common for a band’s membership to change as everyone but the leader scrambles for gigs. But not only does Thumbscrew not replace musicians; everyone in the band plays in each other’s bands. Formanek, guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara are all leaders and composers of some renown, and each of them could easily get someone else to play the other two’s respective instruments.

But one thing that happens when people stick around each other is that as the good first impressions wear off, they really get to know each other. In Thumbscrew’s case, such mutual understanding yields a perception of one another, not just as players, but as improvisers and composers. Halvorson, Fujiwara and Formanek are each other’s best accompanists and interpreters, which is saying something when you look at some of the other people they collectively play with. Their rapport ensures that the most knottily constructed tunes flow with graceful ease, and the group’s leaps into the improvisational void mesh immaculately with its preplanned structures. 

Still, 10 years is long enough to stop surprising each other. Thumbscrew avoids overfamiliarity by switching things up from time to time. On Multicolored Midnight, one modification is the amount of time Fujiwara spends playing vibes instead of his drum kit. His shift to mallets opens up the sound, swapping stated rhythms for felt ones, but it also multiplies the harmonic and melodic potential. Another is that Formanek now runs his double bass through an electronic signal chain, which allows him to trail melting remnants of his phrases behind him as he forges ahead. Halvorson, on the other hand, eases up a tad on her trademarked, slippery tonalities. These adjustments give each composer something new to work with, recharging Thumbscrew’s dynamic interplay. Shit may change, but there’s nothing shitty about the changes Formanek, Halvorson and Fujiwara write for each other.

—Bill Meyer