Featuring veteran bass master Michael Formanek, protean guitarist Mary Halvorson, and indefatigably resourceful drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Thumbscrew spent two weeks honing the tunes on Convallaria at City of Asylum, an artist residency program in Pittsburgh originally launched as a refuge for writers in exile. In recent years City of Asylum has expanded its purview to include musicians, establishing the BNY Mellon Jazz Residency that in June/July 2015 hosted Thumbscrew. For Thumbscrew, the opportunity for intensive, undistracted collaboration yielded a particularly striking body of music, even by the standards of these prodigious players.
Already closely bonded by extensive collaborations in a variety of overlapping ensembles, the powerhouse triumvirate got to spend the kind of concentrated time together that's ''almost unheard of these days,'' says Formanek. ''I've done some composition residencies working on my own. But we were all there together, working on music every day, trying things out. I miss that from my younger days.''
''It was amazing,'' agrees Halvorson. ''Everyone's so busy. Even with my own band it can be like pulling teeth to get one rehearsal together. For two weeks we played every day and worked on all the new music. It really helped us to take the band to the next level.''
Judging from the results, their time was well spent. Like Thumbscrew's 2014 eponymous Cuneiform debut, Convallaria is the work of a true collective with all three players contributing compositions and taking equal responsibility for shaping the music's flow. While exploring an array of improvisational spaces, the band has honed a sinewy sound marked by transparent textures and astringent rhythms. It's music that pushes outward and snaps back into unexpectedly altered forms.