[News] All-star collaborative trio Thumbscrew celebrates 10th anniversary with “Multicolored Midnight”

At the center of a spiraling musical universe, Thumbscrew is like a reverse black hole radiating brilliant constellations of overlapping ensembles. The all-star trio is at the core, and they’re marking their 10th year as a collective endeavor – 2022 – looking ahead to new sonic territory rather than taking stock of a prodigiously creative decade. Celebrating this anniversary, “Multicolored Midnight,” the group’s seventh album for Cuneiform Records, is slated for release September 30, 2022. It features bassist Michael Formanek, drummer/vibraphonist Tomas Fujiwara, and guitarist Mary Halvorson on a set of 11 original pieces that oscillate between detailed composition, unbridled improvisation, and every gradation in between. It’s another step on an extraordinary journey by three of Jazz’s most dauntless and resourceful artists.

Listen to “Survival Fetish” through the SoundCloud player below:

The focus that each player brings to Thumbscrew and the dense web of experience they share is part of what makes the ensemble so extraordinary. Thumbscrew’s ongoing evolution is powered by a super-charged matrix of relationships, as all of the players also lead critically acclaimed bands built on the trio’s thrumming creative synergy. Beyond their work as a trio they’re the foundation for Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus, the hair-raising and ridiculously talent-laden large ensemble that released its 2016 debut on ECMThe Distance.” Formanek joined Halvorson on Tomas Fujiwara & The Hook Up’s third release, the critically hailed 2015 album “After All Is Said” (482 Music). And Halvorson’s Thumbscrew bandmates are the foundation of her song-based band Code Girl. For Halvorson, Thumbscrew has become an invaluable creative foundation. “It’s one of my favorite rhythm sections to be a part of, the power and energy and everything we create together,” she said. “At this point, all of us have used this rhythm section as leaders.

Multicolored Midnight” features music that Thumbscrew honed during a three-week residency at City of Asylum, a Pittsburgh program founded as a refuge for writers in exile. Since expanding its purview to include musicians, City of Asylum has become the fourth wheel powering Thumbscrew’s all-terrain evolution as the triumvirate fully utilizes the sequestration to generate and refine new pieces. Three of Thumbscrew’s prior albums had also been generated at City of Asylum. “Multicolored Midnight” grew out of the group’s fourth residency in August of 2021, which provided a welcome respite from the sudden and unnerving isolation imposed by the pandemic.

If there was an agenda for “Multicolored Midnight,” it centered on fully incorporating Fujiwara’s vibraphone work into the mix, a bright hue that surfaced briefly on Thumbscrew’s 2020 celebration of Anthony Braxton’s 75th birthday, The Anthony Braxton Project. Marking a decade doesn’t have quite the same panache as a diamond jubilee, “but we do feel like it’s a big deal,” Formanek said. “That’s a lot of time for a cooperative band, and the residencies are a big part of what’s allowed us to dive in deeper and keep creating new music.”

The album opens with the tightly constructed “I’m A Senator!,” one of five tunes that Formanek contributed to the project. It’s a wicked little groove that features some sharp Halvorson chordal work sandwiching her vertiginous bottom-falling-out single note runs. The bassist built “Shit Changes” on Fujiwara’s vibes ostinato, which feeds the mysterious, slowly blossoming melody. Mutations occur but the bloom is hardy. Formanek draws on many sources when it comes to titling his tunes, often settling on a word or phrase that has little direct connection to the piece. And then there’s “Fidgety,” which captures an anxious, unsettled mood from the opening bass solo, which Formanek bends and contours with some deft electronic processing. It’s his first use of electronics on double bass in Thumbscrew, adding another sonic resource to the growing palette. He’s at his most tuneful on “Capsicum Annuum,” a song-like tune that builds to a brief thrashing passage before the trio returns to the alluring melody. The intriguing line references the forward-and-backward phrase ideas that Formanek has explored elsewhere in a series of palindromic tunes.

Fujiwara brought three tunes to the program, including “Song For Mr. Humphries,” a tribute to Pittsburgh drum maestro Roger Humphries, the well-traveled veteran who played on Horace Silver’s 1965 classic Song For My Father. Propelled by a quirky, vaulting bassline, the tune grows more intricate and less rhythmically stable as it progresses. It isn’t based on anything that Humphries plays. Rather, it’s a thank you for his generosity and ongoing contributions to the music. He actually lives a few blocks from City of Asylum and on Thumbscrew’s first residency City of Asylum co-founders Diane Samuels and Henry Reese made a point of mentioning him. “He still plays around town all the time,” Fujiwara said. “We went and checked him out and his feel and sound is amazing, so classic and specific. Every time I go to Pittsburgh I hear him play and I go to his house for a lesson and a hang.”
The pandemic experience doesn’t surface directly on the album often, though Fujiwara’s “Future Reruns and Nostalgia” evokes the prickly, surreal suspension of time that marked the first months of sheltering in place. The chiming notes on the vibes that open the piece seem to toll for all of us as Formanek’s squally arco bass work ratchets up the pressure. The melody ascends and hangs in the air. Halvorson also contributed three pieces to Multicolored Midnight, including the title track, a stuttery tune with an almost folk-song like theme driven by her strummed chords. An improviser and composer of dry and poker-faced wit, she builds a repeating figure into the angular melody that was inspired by the sound of a skipping LP. On “Swirling Lives” she creates an almost chamber jazz setting for Fujiwara’s vibes. There’s a melodic line running through the tune that’s carried by all three players at different points and as the pace accelerates to a sprint the chamber piece takes on the feel of a frantic game of hide and seek. Playful, mischievous and insistently present tense, this is music that illuminates each moment’s vast possibilities.
An album laden with fully realized connections and reflections, Multicolored Midnight also provides tantalizing hints regarding Thumbscrew’s future explorations. Integrating new textures, sounds and concepts, Thumbscrew has turned into an essential all-terrain vehicle for three of improvised music’s most venturesome artists. After a decade of coaxing and inspiring each other, the trio’s musical universe just keeps expanding, and Multicolored Midnight sheds dazzling light on where they’ll be heading next.

Thumbscrew’s first gig as a collective trio was on March 11, 2012.  Since then, the all-star trio has been in high demand for performances at Jazz and New Music festivals worldwide.  They have played at such North American festivals as the Vancouver Jazz FestivalMonterey Jazz Festival, Atlanta Jazz Festival, Philadelphia’s Center City Jazz Festival, and the wildly popular beyond-genre Big Ears Festival.  Thumbscrew has also played numerous festivals overseas, touring Europe and the Middle East.  In addition, they’ve played at and/or served residencies at numerous high-profile venues worldwide, including the Village Vanguard (NYC), Walker Arts Center (Minneapolis), Blues Alley (Washington DC), and many more. Featuring the trio’s masterful and near-intuitive interplay, consummate level of skill, distinctive compositions, and joie de vivre onstage, Thumbscrew’s live shows have become legendary, instilling audiences with awe and generating positive reviews in the music press.
Thumbscrew’s recorded music has likewise received worldwide acclaim. Counting its newest release, Multicolored Midnight, the band has released seven albums since 2014, all on Cuneiform Records. These albums received an impressive amount of press worldwide, including numerous 4-star reviews and/or spotlights in DownBeat and other jazz magazines, in addition to being named in numerous Best Jazz Albums of Year lists globally.  In addition, the Thumbscrew trio and its individual members have been cited in various Best of Year lists for Musicians, Rising Star Artists, and Rising Star Ensembles
A decade into its existence as a band, Thumbscrew has compiled an impressive, rock-solid legacy. The stellar artists of this unique cooperative look forward to building further on this strong foundation, launching new sonic journeys for Thumbscrew as well as utilizing the trio as the rhythmic heart in many of their individual large ensembles.

The material included in this recording was developed during a three-week residency at City of Asylum in August of 2021. City of Asylum’s mission is to build a just community by protecting and celebrating freedom of creative expression. For more information, visit: cityofasylum.org


1. I’m a Senator!  4:41
2. Song For Mr. Humphries  4:40 
3. Survival Fetish  5:33 
4. Shit Changes  5:13 
5. Fidgety  6:49 
6. Multicolored Midnight  4:24 
7. Future Reruns and Nostalgia  8:24 
8. Capsicum Annuum  5:00 
9. Swirling Lives  8:13 
10. Should Be Cool  5:20 
11. Brutality and Beauty  4:19 

Tracks 1, 4, 5, 8 & 10 composed by Michael Formanek (Formtone Music, BMI)
Tracks 2, 7 & 11 composed by Tomas Fujiwara (BMI)
Tracks 3, 6 & 9 composed by Mary Halvorson (Meltframe Music, BMI)


Michael Formanek – Double Bass and Electronics
Tomas Fujiwara – Drums and Vibraphone
Mary Halvorson – Guitar



Thumbscrew at Blues Alley, Washington DC, 2022 // photo by joyce

2022 USA
September 24 – tba – East Hampton, NY
~ ~ ~ 


October 12 – Open Music Graz – Tube’s – Grieskai 74a – Graz, Austria

October 14 – Handelsbeurs Concertzaal – Kouter 29 – Gent, Belgium

October 16 – October 16 – Skopje Jazz Fest – Skopje, North Macedonia

October 19 – TBA

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Cuneiform Records |Official Website|Bandcamp|Facebook Page|Twitter|Instagram|YouTube Channel|

Author: Jacopo Vigezzi

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