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Thumbscrew (Fujiwara / Halvorson / Formanek): The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform)

The Thumbscrew trio of NY improvisers Tomas Fujiwara on drums & vibes, Mary Halvorson on guitar, and Michael Formanek on double bass, turn their focus to their shared history with composer and reedist Anthony Braxton as he celebrates his 75th birthday, performing 11 previously unheard compositions selected from Composition No. 14 through No. 274; masterful and profound.

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product information:

UPC: 045775047522

Label: Cuneiform
Catalog ID: Rune 475
Squidco Product Code: 29418

Format: CD
Condition: New
Released: 2020
Country: USA
Packaging: Digipack
Recorded at Mr. Smalls Studio, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on September 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th, 2019, by Nate Campisi.


Tomas Fujiwara-drums, vibraphone

Mary Halvorson-guitar

Michael Formanek-double bass

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Artist Biographies:

"Born in Boston in 1977, Brooklyn-based drummer Tomas Fujiwara emerged during the early to mid-2000s as a valued sideman before forming his own quintet, Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up, which gathered accolades for blending influences such as Wayne Shorter, Taleb Kweli, and Me'Shell Ndegéocello with the experimental and unpredictable spirit of the 21st century Brooklyn creative jazz scene. After studying for eight years with drummer and educator Alan Dawson in the Boston area, Fujiwara moved to New York at the age of 17. His first performing experiences included a five-year stint beginning around the turn of the millennium with the off-Broadway show Stomp, but he also began appearing as a sideman on jazz recordings (e.g., Three Souls by the Adam Rafferty Trio in 2003) and moving in exploratory, adventurous directions.

Fujiwara developed a particularly strong collaborative relationship with New Haven, Connecticut-based cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, whose own avant-leaning ensembles have featured a number of top Brooklyn improvising musicians. Fujiwara first appeared with Bynum on two 2007 recordings, The Middle Picture by the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet (Firehouse 12) and True Events by the Taylor Ho Bynum/Tomas Fujiwara Duo (482 Music). During the following years, the drummer appeared on the Bynum Sextet albums Asphalt Flowers Forking Paths (hatOLOGY, 2009), Apparent Distance (Firehouse 12, 2011), and Navigation (Possibility Abstracts X & XI) (Firehouse 12, 2013), and the Bynum/Fujiwara Duo album Stepwise (Nottwo, 2010). Fujiwara is also a member of Positive Catastrophe, a ten-piece outfit co-led by Bynum and percussionist Abraham Gomez-Delgado and inspired by Sun Ra and Latin jazz; the group has released two albums on Cuneiform, Garabatos Volume One (2009) and Dibrujo, Dibrujo, Dibrujo... (2012).

Another musician with whom Fujiwara has often worked, guitarist Mary Halvorson, also often travels in the same creative orbit as Taylor Ho Bynum; like Fujiwara, Halvorson is a member of the Bynum Sextet, and along with Bynum and violist Jessica Pavone, the drummer and guitarist formed the collective quartet the Thirteenth Assembly, which has recorded two albums for the Important Records label, 2009's (un)sentimental and 2011's Station Direct. Fujiwara, Halvorson, and Bynum also appeared as members of the Chicago-New York nonet Living by Lanterns, whose New Myth/Old Science album -- based on fragments of music recorded by Sun Ra in 1961 -- appeared on Cuneiform in 2012. In 2014 Cuneiform released another album featuring Fujiwara and Halvorson, the eponymous debut of Thumbscrew, a collaborative trio also including veteran bassist Michael Formanek.

Fujiwara first assembled his Hook Up quintet in 2008, later describing the bandmembers as "some of the most important musicians in my life" -- and given all of Fujiwara and Halvorson's recorded appearances together in various settings, it was no surprise that the guitarist was in the lineup. Also featuring tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and bassist Danton Boller, Tomas Fujiwara & the Hook Up released their debut album, Actionspeak, on 482 Music in 2010. Featuring Trevor Dunn on bass in place of Boller, the group's sophomore album, The Air Is Different, arrived (also on 482 Music) in 2012.

The many other projects in which Fujiwara has played as a collaborator or sideman include the Steve Lacy tribute band Ideal Bread, the eight-piece "bhangra funk dhol 'n' brass" outfit Red Baraat, and saxophonist/clarinetist Matt Bauder's acoustic jazz quintet. "

-All Music (

Have a better biography or biography source? Please Contact Us so that we can update this biography.

"One of improvised music's most in-demand guitarists, Mary Halvorson has been active in New York since 2002, following jazz studies at Wesleyan University and the New School. Critics have called her "a singular talent" (Lloyd Sachs, JazzTimes), "NYC's least-predictable improviser" (Howard Mandel, City Arts), "one of the most exciting and original guitarists in jazz-or otherwise" (Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal), and "one of today's most formidable bandleaders" (Francis Davis, Village Voice). The Philadelphia City Paper's Shaun Brady adds, "Halvorson has been steadily reshaping the sound of jazz guitar in recent years with her elastic, sometimes-fluid, sometimes-shredding, wholly unique style."

After three years of study with visionary composer and saxophonist Anthony Braxton, Ms. Halvorson became an active member of several of his bands, including his trio, septet and 12+1tet. To date, she appears on six of Mr. Braxton's recordings. Ms. Halvorson has also performed alongside iconic guitarist Marc Ribot, in his bands Sun Ship and The Young Philadelphians, and with the bassist Trevor Dunn in his Trio-Convulsant. Over the past decade she has worked with such diverse bandleaders as Tim Berne, Taylor Ho Bynum, Tomas Fujiwara, Ingrid Laubrock, Myra Melford, Jason Moran, Joe Morris, Tom Rainey and Mike Reed.

As a bandleader and composer, one of Ms. Halvorson's primary outlets is her longstanding trio, featuring bassist John Hébert and drummer Ches Smith. Since their 2008 debut album, Dragon's Head, the band has been recognized as a rising star jazz band by Downbeat Magazine for five consecutive years. Ms. Halvorson's quintet, which adds trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon to the trio, has released two critically acclaimed albums on the Firehouse 12 label: Saturn Sings and Bending Bridges. Most recently she has added two additional band members-tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and trombonist Jacob Garchik-to form a septet, featured on her 2013 release Illusionary Sea. Ms. Halvorson also co-leads a longstanding chamber-jazz duo with violist Jessica Pavone, the avant-rock band People and the collective ensembles Thumbscrew and Secret Keeper."

-Mary Halvorson Website (

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"One marker of bassist Michael Formanek's creativity and versatility is the range of distinguished musicians of several generations he's worked with. While still a teenager in the 1970s he toured with drummer Tony Williams and saxophonist Joe Henderson; starting in the '80s he played long stints with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Fred Hersch and Freddie Hubbard. (As a callback to those days, Formanek recorded with hardbop pianist Freddie Redd in 2013). The bassist has played a pivotal role on New York's creative jazz scene going back to the '90s when he notably led his own quintet and played in Tim Berne's barnstorming quartet Bloodcount. Nowadays Formanek's in the co-op Thumbscrew with Brooklyn guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara.

Formanek is also a composer and leader of various bands. His principal recording and international touring vehicle is his acclaimed quartet with Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Craig Taborn on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums, which records for ECM; 2010's The Rub and Spare Change and 2012's Small Places both earned coveted five-star raves in Down Beat. Formanek writes, and the quartet plays, compositions of great rhythmic sophistication that unfold in a natural sounding way - challenging music the players make sound like lyrical free expression. His occasional groups include the 18-piece all-star Ensemble Kolossus, roping in many New York improvisers he works with. Ensemble Kolossus recorded their first CD of all Formanek originals for the prestigious ECM label in December of 2014. The CD, The Distance was released in February 2016 and in addition to numerous other accolades also received a five-star review in Downbeat!

Formanek's other recordings as leader include Wide Open Spaces and Extended Animation for quintet and Low Profile and Nature of the Beast for seven players (all on Enja), and the solo album Am I Bothering You? (Screwgun). Mirage (Clean Feed) is by the occasional improvising trio of Formanek, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. Thumbscrew's 2014 debut is on Cuneiform Records. Michael Formanek has also made dozens of recordings as sideman, for among others Dave Ballou, Tim Berne, Jane Ira Bloom, Dave Burrell, Harold Danko, Marty Ehrlich, Tomas Fujiwara, Gary Thomas and Jack Walrath.

As composer of works for ensembles from duo to mixed jazz and classical orchestra, Michael Formanek has received institutional support from Chamber Music America, the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, the Peabody Conservatory, the Maryland State Arts Council and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. As an educator, Formanek teaches bass and other jazz courses, and leads the Jazz Ensemble at Baltimore's Peabody Conservatory."

-Michael Formanek Website (

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track listing:

1. Composition No. 52 4:27

2. Composition No. 157 2:21

3. Composition No. 14 - Guitar 2:25

4. Composition No. 68 7:42

5. Composition No. 274 6:11

6. Composition No. 14 - Drums 3:32

7. Composition No. 61 2:59

8. Composition No. 35 7:41

9. Composition No. 14 - Bass 3:04

10. Composition No. 150 2:57

11. Composition No. 79 3:34
sample the album:

descriptions, reviews, &c.

"Over the course of six decades NEA Jazz Master Anthony Braxton has created a singularly vast and variegated body of music as a composer and recording artist, an oeuvre encompassing projects ranging in scope from his pioneering 1969 solo saxophone album For Alto to 2016's epic opera Trillium J (The Non-Unconfessionables). Musicians around the world have been coming together over the past year to celebrate his 75th birthday with an array of performances and recordings, but leave it to the all-star collective trio Thumbscrew to focus an utterly personal lens on previously unheard compositions with The Anthony Braxton Project. For fans familiar with Braxton's music the project offers a whole new window into his genius for designing protean musical situations pregnant with possibilities. Those less acquainted with his work might find themselves enthralled and amazed by the sheer diversity of rhythmic and melodic material explored by Thumbscrew. The trio's fifth album extends the group's relationship with Cuneiform, which has released all of the band's recordings.

Invited to explore the Tri-Centric Foundation's voluminous Braxton archives in New Haven, Conn. as part of the Braxton75 celebration, drummer/percussionist Tomas Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Michael Formanek spent a long afternoon looking for rarely played pieces that could fit their instrumental palette. "The idea was for us to choose compositions of Anthony's, mostly early compositions, which hadn't been previously recorded (or, in a couple cases, recorded only once or twice)," says Halvorson. "We chose pieces that captured our imagination and that we thought would work well for the instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums or vibraphone. Our choices included graphic scores, complex notated pieces, and everything in between."

Like with several previous Thumbscrew albums, the triumvirate used an extended, four-week residency at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh to prepare for the recording. Working on the music daily (while also honing a new book of original Thumbscrew compositions), they developed arrangements of varying detail based on the scores and the corresponding catalogue notes for each composition. While aiming to understand and execute Braxton's intention with each piece, the nature of his music required them to shape the material anew. "We have a shared language in terms of how we improvise, but the composition very much guides and informs our improvisations, so having music from a new composer puts us in a different frame of mind and adds another layer to what we do as a trio," Fujiwara says. "Looking through the Tri-Centric Archives, we were like kids in a candy store-a feeling that there were unlimited options that all would work for us and be a joy to explore-and we had a great guide in Tri-Centric's Carl Testa. Mention a certain flavor and he'd show us all we could ever dream of."

The album opens with "no. 52" a piece full of surprising twists, starting with the shuffle-like bass line, shifting rhythmic patterns and wild interval leaps. With all the twists, the track unfolds like a jazz tune, with a long opening theme followed by improvised passages that return briefly to the theme. On a different tack, "no. 157" is a brief, almost through composed tune built on two overlaying lines that run their course as disjointed counterpoint. All three players get a solo crack at the reoccurring "no. 14," a graphic score featuring a series of geometric shapes. Halvorson's meditative investigation feels like it's tinged with the blues, while Fujiwara leaves plenty of space as he builds tension rolling from his tom to his bass drum, and Formanek strolls insouciantly, like a man enjoying a late afternoon crossing a well-tended park. All three tracks were first takes, and carry Braxton's unmistakable DNA. "With all of Anthony's compositions the identity is so strong," Halvorson says. "You really feel you can go anywhere­-it feels expansive, not limiting. He's setting a really strong energy and intention, but knowing him, you know he wants you to take risks, try things out. He wants us to be creative and explore within the parameters."

If "no. 14" is something of a bagatelle, "no. 68" is an intricate and detailed piece that introduces Fujiwara's vibes into the Thumbscrew mix for the first time. Atmospheric and redolent of shimmering horizons, the piece features the closest thing to a traditional three-part score of any composition they selected "with three lines of music, a top line that was probably for saxophone, a bass part marked with dynamics and arco and pizzicato, and a percussion line," Formanek says. "It's a very composed piece with intricate rhythms and dramatic interval leaps. In the last part we all play a rhythm together and that's the end."

Each piece shines a light on a different facet of Braxton's musical universe. "no. 274" is the only entry from Braxton's Ghost Trance work. Completely notated but requiring constant interpretation, it's built on musical cells with constantly shifting tempos. The point isn't to master the system. "It's about how you deal with music that's almost impossible to play and what happens when you do them with someone else, opening up possibilities you couldn't plan," Formanek says. The shadow of a march falls on "no. 61" a playfully stuttering and surging piece originally written for a saxophone/bass duo. The album closes with a blast of joy with Braxton's homage to the Southwest territory bands of the 1930s. With an irresistible walking bass line and ringing unison notes on guitar and vibes, it's a bright, sunny number "with very specific stylistic references," Formanek says. "The composition notes mentioned playing the way Basie might have played some of this music, with that bounce and feel. The written music really fits in that style, but in a really Braxton way."

Formanek's relationship with Braxton's music dates back to buying a compilation of his Arista Freedom recordings in the mid-1970s. Immediately struck by the music, he tried to decipher the symbols and diagrams that Braxton used as titles. He followed his output over the decades "amazed at the range of music and how much he pushed himself to be creative and indulge all of his curiosities, the way he used the musicians to help realize the vision," Formanek says. But it wasn't until the late 1990s that he had a chance perform with Braxton, joining a multimedia production at the Knitting Factory as the second bassist.

Wesleyan is where Halvorson came into Braxton's orbit during her undergrad years from 1998-2002, a creative relationship that launched her as one of the most celebrated improvisers to emerge in the 21st century. "I consider him one of the main catalysts for me deciding to become a musician," she says. "Studying with Anthony, learning his musical systems and playing music with him remains one of the most important and inspiring musical experiences of my life."

Fujiwara met Braxton through Taylor Ho Bynum when the trumpeter was attending Wesleyan, which led to several opportunities to perform with Braxton in different settings, including a trio with drummer Tom Rainey documented on the 2014 album Trio (New Haven) 2013 (New Braxton House). "Having time to talk and hang out with Anthony, his energy and his whole presence has been very inspiring," Fujiwara says. "Both as a person and a musician he gives this real jolt of energy and creativity and positivity to try things and explore things and push myself." "-Cuneiform Records


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."

"-Justin Cober-Lake, Daily Progress

Get additional information at The Daily Progress
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