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Thumbscrew tightens its focus and teamwork to pay homage to Anthony Braxton

Thumbscrew tightens its focus and teamwork to pay homage to Anthony Braxton

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Thumbscrew recently tackled a new challenge. The Tri-Centric Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to the work and legacy of Anthony Braxton — asked the trio to record an album for Braxton75 in honor of the artist’s 75th birthday this past June, focusing on unrecorded, unperformed music.


All three members of experimental jazz group Thumbscrew focus on that one reason for their steady, successful work together, most recently for new album “The Anthony Braxton Project.” Each member — guitarist Mary Halvorson, percussionist Tomas Fujiwara and bassist Michael Formanek — have stellar careers outside the trio, winning awards and creating highly acclaimed music whether as leaders or in ensembles.

Halvorson received a MacArthur Fellowship (a “genius grant”) last year, and she just won her fourth straight DownBeat award for best guitarist. Fujiwara leads several groups, has performed on and off Broadway, and has become ubiquitous in the creative jazz scene. Formanek has succeeded as a sideman, a composer, an educator (notably at the Peabody Conservatory), and a leader of his own. Yet all three have consistently returned to Thumbscrew since its debut self-titled release in 2014.

Depending on your vantage point, Thumbscrew has either become a jazz supergroup or the hub of New York’s avant-garde scene.

The members, though, see it differently, explaining that it’s a collective, and their shared commitment to each other and to Thumbscrew make it something special. The cooperative nature of the group extends even to interviews — they prefer to each have an equal voice in the way they’re presented.

“When other people speak about the group, there can be narratives that don’t work for us,” explained Fujiwara. “In jazz and improvised music, it’s about a leader with a band, and so the idea about this being a collective, a band … is very important to us.”

Both Formanek and Halvorson are quick to make similar points, having found natural musical and personal connections.

“The people and the groups that I’ve stayed the most connected to are the ones where there’s a deep, natural intuitive connection, where you don’t have to talk, but where you’re able to dive deeper and talk,” Formanek said. “For me, this group has all of that going. It’s also the only cooperative group that really functions as a cooperative.”

Halvorson recalled that everyone clicked very quickly and became equally invested in the work of the group.

“We all are bandleaders on our own, but having this as a vehicle that’s sort of become it’s own thing is special,” she said. “It’s developed it’s own identity.”

Over the past few years, the trio has been fortunate to shape that identity through three residencies at Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum, using that unusual amount of time to tighten their playing around complicated pieces. Previously, the group members have brought in their own compositions, the writer somewhat beginning as a leader as the trio collectively shapes the piece.

They’re recently taken on a new challenge.

The Tri-Centric Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to the work and legacy of Anthony Braxton — asked the trio to record an album for Braxton75 in honor of the artist’s 75{sup}th{/sup} birthday this past June, focusing on unrecorded, unperformed music.

“I think maybe having done the ‘Theirs’ CD [of covers] got our feet wet in that process already. Before that, it was our music and there was a leader to get things going,” Formanek said. “After doing ‘Theirs,’ that was in the air, and the suggestion from Tri-Centric came up about being involved in the Braxton75 and just seemed like a natural thing for so many reasons.”

One of those reasons was Formanek’s personal interest. He has the least history with Braxton of the three, but he “always wanted to take that deeper dive.”

“I’ve always wanted to learn more about his process and all that,” he explained. “I was super-excited to go up and look through the archives.”

Fujiwara spoke about the inspirational nature of Braxton’s idiosyncratic compositions.

“It’s supposed to inspire, to trigger personal creativity. That energy that he puts into it [is] very freeing. We felt that energy while interpreting. It felt like we had a certain amount of agency to interpret. Some of the notated stuff is really challenging. The goal is not uptight precision; it generates a certain flow and certain energy. We don’t have to wonder if we’re doing it wrong. It was very inspiring.”

Although each of the musicians has some connection to Braxton, Halvorson has, in Fujiwara’s words, “ exponentially more experience studying and then playing with him.”

To put it simply: “ Anthony Braxton is the reason I’m a musician,” she said.

Halvorson had gone to Wesleyan University knowing it had a great music program, but intending to study science.

“At some point, I had dropped my science classes and was majoring in music, and that was completely his fault. His enthusiasm and creativity was so infectious,” she explained. “Seeing the scope of what he does made me see that music was much bigger than what I thought. He really encouraged that. At the same time, he was very deferential to learning about different music histories, learning about different types of music.”

With everyone enthused about the project (and enthusiasm was the dominant mood in talking to all three artists), the musicians set about searching through Tri-Centric’s archives for pieces that would work. Nothing was composed for the guitar-bass-drums combination, so the process also would involve working out new arrangements. Like Fujiwara, Halvorson found these compositions to be inspiring.

“I think that’s one of the tell-tale signs of a great composer — it doesn’t feel restrictive,” she said. “What could be seen as a limitation, it feels more like an inspiration than a direction or limitation.”

Fujiwara plays vibraphone on the album, a rarity in his recordings. He laughs about it now, admitting that he was late to the initial meeting to look at scores, and his bandmates had picked some selections requiring three melodic instruments, confident that he could handle vibes — an idea he “might have sheepishly vetoed” had he been on time.

Halvorson said that she and Formanek simply thought, “Wait a second; you could play v and then we could do this piece,” and thought it fit with Braxton’s encouragement of musicians to be multi-instrumentalists.

Even after all this work, Formanek feels like he’s “just barely scratching the surface” with Braxton, but part of what gives the project so much meaning is that desire to “connect with it more” even as he “lets it take on more of an organic process.”

And that process works extremely well in Thumbscrew, a group that synthesizes each artist’s gifts and needs unusually well.

Formanek detailed a little more how that works, saying, “Trust is such an important component, both as being in a group but as improvisers, too — that fine line of letting everybody do exactly what they feel is the appropriate thing to do without necessarily getting pulled completely into their place, either. We’re all so respectful of each other’s way of doing things. In this particular group, a lot of those things happen more naturally and intuitively. I consider myself really lucky in that way.”

With such energy, the artists continue to move forward even as the country takes a pause. Yet another Thumbscrew album (of originals) will be out next year. Each of them pushes forward in rehearsing and composing.

Fujiwara noted the importance of having “motivation even without external opportunities or attention.” Halvorson continues her work on studying poetic forms (an indication that, yes, a second Code Girl album is on the way). Formanek reflected gratefully on his time on this album, wishing to add a parting thought, particularly relevant right now.

He wants to take a moment for “the recognition of the people that we have learned from and gotten inspiration from, the Black composers that we’ve studied or worked with or learned from — Braxton being one of the most important composers in America — but also that we’ve gotten so much from Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, going back to Duke and Mingus. To say how much we appreciate and have gotten from those musicians can’t be overstated.”

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