By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
The photos on Thumbscrew’s second album, Convallaria, show the band posing in an undeveloped building. Considering the trio’s connection with the experimental jazz scene in New York, the locale might be misconstrued as a loft in that city. But the pictures were taken in Pittsburgh in the space that has since become Alphabet City, the performance space, book store and restaurant connected with the City of Asylum organization.
The 2015 residency that yielded both Convallaria’s music and photos was the first of several trips that Mary Halvorson (guitar), Tomas Fujiwara (drums) and Michael Formanek (bass) have made to Pittsburgh. They have recorded three albums at Mr. Smalls Studio in the North Side, a stone’s throw from Alphabet City. All three have also brought their own projects to town.
“Once we got there for the first residency and really explored and interacted with the city, we totally fell in with love it,” Fujiwara says. “The vibe and the energy is such a hard thing to put your finger on. But it’s always resonated with us. It’s an urban environment but it’s a little more personal with a small town vibe than huge cities.”
All three members of Thumbscrew lead other bands, but they launched the trio as a cooperative where everyone brings in compositions and has an equal say. Despite their busy schedules, all three of them are committed to making time for the project.
Part of this can be attributed to each member’s strong musical personality. Halvorson has arguably the most distinct guitar sound in current jazz. “She’s very creative and spontaneous and has a very unique vocabulary. But her ideas and intentions are always clear,” Fujiwara says. “That is something that is really valuable when you talk about playing music that involves a lot of interaction, improvisation and interpretation. So there’s a real strength behind that.”
The drummer says some of the same characteristics describe Formanek. “He deals with all the possibilities of the role of the bass equally. He can really hold a band together with a lot of strength and clarity, and he can also interact and step forward and make all the creative statements that steer the band in a different direction,” says Fujiwara.
By the time the trio performs at Alphabet City, they will have spent another week in residency, working not only on new originals but also on a set of unreleased compositions by saxophonist Anthony Braxton.