Photo by Erika Fleegle

Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, and Tomas Fujiwara of Thumbscrew treated an audience to selections from their newest jazz album created through the BNY Mellon Jazz Residency at City of Asylum on July 5, 2015.

By Erika Fleegle

It was an idyllic summer night on Sampsonia Way in Central Northside.

A cool breeze blew as neighbors gathered beneath Alphabet City tent to enjoy the sounds of City of Asylum’s latest residents, Thumbscrew July 5.

While the name of the group may conjure up thoughts of medieval torture, the sound of this jazz trio is anything but. Guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and bassist Michael Formanek, who initially came together on accident when Formanek subbed into Halvorson and Fujiwara’s band, just wrapped up their time at City of Asylum’s first-ever BNY Mellon Jazz Residency, during which they put the final touches on original compositions and recorded an album at Mr. Smalls Recording Studio in Allegheny West.

After a brief introduction by Sylvia Duarte, City of Asylum’s program manager, and a quick moment to tune their instruments, Thumbscrew unleashed their unique sound to the masses.

In order to warm up the crowd (and their instruments), the evening began with some older songs from Thumbscrew’s repertoire.  The first, an original by Halvorson, showcased the guitarist’s natural talent, her fingers moving deftly up and down the shell-inlaid frets of her guitar as she rocked soulfully back and forth, keeping time. Formanek was equally deft, plucking out and plugging in little arpeggios in the breaks and silence between Halvorson’s guitar playing and Fujiwara’s emphatic drumming. Though the avant-garde combination of guitar, double bass, and drums has the potential to suggest dissonance, the combination works well for Thumbscrew.  Bass solos give way to soft rumbles from cymbals accented by distorted chords from Halvorson.

As the older music faded into the evening, newer songs took their places, many of which were inspired by the group’s two-week residency on Sampsonia Way. One song, Screaming Piha, was inspired by Formanek’s trip to the National Aviary in Allegheny Center. The screaming piha, which has one of the loudest calls in the bird world, even makes an appearance on the recorded track. In terms of the live performance, the music crescendos and accelerates to the point at which one could almost hear the bird screeching amid the chaotic cacophony of sound. Yet another song, Sampsonia Rhythms, echoes the neighborhood’s creative energy. Following a funky, yet walkable, beat.

The music does indeed move like a thumbscrew, twisting and turning up and down and out across time signatures and keys, asking listeners to follow along with their minds as well as their ears.

In an attempt to sell records, Fujiwara decided to sweeten the deal.

“I’m proud to say, that for the first time in jazz history, every album purchased comes with a free Klondike bar,” Fujiwara said. “I could use one right about now.”

Halvorson took a moment to thank all who made the event possible, saying that, “It’s been such an unbelievable experience for all of us. This is such a special place. We’re all sad to be going home tomorrow.”

Formanek, too, reflected on the group’s residency, noting that the most valuable takeaway from the experience was, “in the literal sense, the album.” According to Formanek, most of the tracks are already composed so being in the studio allowed ample time for fleshing out arrangements.

“We also got a really great impression of what’s going on here,” Formanek said. “To be in a place with an art scene like this is really eye-opening.”

Thumbscrew plans to release its new album in the spring of 2016.

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Photo by Erika Fleegle

Audience members had the chance to chat with members of Thumbscrew after the show on July 5, 2015.