AMN Reviews: Thumbscrew – Convallaria (2016; Cuneiform Records)

eyesores_bookletConvallaria majalis is the scientific name for the lily of the valley, an attractive, sweet-smelling, yet highly-poisonous flowering plant. On this, their second album, Thumbscrew provides a similar juxtaposition – music that pays homage to the familiar and comfortable jazz tradition, then proceeds to transcend it in an avant-garde exploration.

Consisting of Mary Halvorson on guitar, Michael Formanek on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Thumbscrew adopts the instrumental format of a power trio. The center-point of the group is undoubtedly Halvorson, who has done more than anyone for jazz guitar in the last ten years. Her playing, which has been well-document here and on other pages, is a herky-jerky, prickly amalgam of Joe Morris, Derek Bailey, and Sonny Sharrock. The fact that she can play with such odd meters and timbres, yet make her lines fit into the rhythmic structure provided by her bandmates, reflects extraordinary feel and intelligence on her part.

But one should not downplay the contributions of Formanek and Fujiwara, both veterans of creative music in their own right. The former has been a major contributor to the works of Tim Berne, and has played with Dave Douglas, Scott Fields, and Steve Swell amongst many others. Despite being a generation older than Halvorson and Fujiwara, Formanek is a formidable outside presence on this recording, playing notes up and down the bass, never resting. Fujiwara has settled into being a supple and powerful drummer, updating the jazz percussion styles of the 50’s and 60’s with a modern feel informed (but not limited) by rock music.

Thumbscrew- Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara - Convallaria - Thumbscrew-2016-1-credit_Brian_CohenConvallaria is an eleven track set of short and mid-length tunes that provides all three members a chance to stretch out. On the opener, Cleome, Halvorson speed-picks with heavy distortion over a shifting base provided by Formanek and Fujiwara, before heading into deeper free-improv waters. Another notable performance is on Screaming Piha, an open ended composition with Halvorson using delays to multitrack fuzz guitar into a wall of sound, while her bandmates provide a slowly increasing tempo that ultimately blends into this wall.  Tail of the Sad Dog features fractured rhythms over which Halvorson provides clearly-picked melodies combined with sounds formed by sliding her fingers up and down the fretboard. Fujiwara, in particular seems to go in his own direction on this track, leading the others with his urgent snare-work. On Spring Ahead, Formanek gives his bass a bowed workout while Halvorson stretches and bends notes.

It is no surprise, given the pedigree of its performers, that Convallaria is a strong album. Thumbscrew has something of an “it” factor, in that they are sailing out of sight of land, and yet their offerings are warm and enjoyable.  A solid release of the year candidate.

Other AMN Reviews featuring Halvorson, Formanek or Fujiwara:

AMN Reviews: Bob Gluck – The Miles Davis Lost Quintet & Other Revolutionary Ensembles (U of Chicago Press: 2016)

9780226180762Until the recent opening of the archives and subsequent series of releases, the 1969 Miles Davis Quintet—the so-called Lost Quintet—was something of a legend, much talked about but rarely heard by itself except on a few hard to get bootlegs: The music world’s equivalent of apocryphal texts concealed in jars in the desert. This quintet–which in addition to Davis included Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette–is now the focal point of Bob Gluck’s engaging narrative history of some of the most innovative American music of the late 1960s-early 1970s.


The Lost Quintet proper only lasted for a single year, from March 1969-March 1970. The group never made a studio recording by itself, although as early as 1968 its members recorded studio material with Davis as elements within larger ensembles—the best known of these probably being the expanded group that recorded Bitches Brew in August 1969, just after the quintet had come off of a European tour. The group was active at a time when Davis famously—or infamously, for some contemporaries—was turning his attention to funk, rock, and the integration of electronic instruments into the basic acoustic jazz ensemble. This turn signaled a significant change in the sound of his music, for while his mid-1960s working quintet of Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams had undoubtedly pushed against the boundaries of jazz conventions, the new group, in both its core and expanded versions, would push further still.

The mid-1960s quintet opened up time, using it as an elastic structural element that allowed rhythmic cycles to expand and contract as if they were following the variable measure of the breath, all while maintaining continuity through a steady, underlying pulse and a basic preservation of song forms. By contrast the Lost Quintet brought timbre—at the local level—and texture—at the global level—to the forefront in order to shape performances and to structure improvisations. Consequently, their sound was deeply rooted in a plasticity emerging from the dynamic interaction of timbral forms. The Lost Quintet was able to open up timbre in this way in significant part because of Corea’s innovative use of the electric piano in a predominantly acoustic setting. Through his use of tone clusters, open space, percussive attacks and liberal application of ring modulation, Corea took the instrument and converted it from a conventionally harmonic role to one of providing intermittent blocks and slabs of sound verging on pure, pitchless timbre. Holland similarly explored an expanded role for the double bass, drawing on extended arco techniques as well as a rapid, flamenco-like pizzicato that blended individual notes into abstract, mobile masses.

Whereas the mid-1960s quintet hinted at a dissolution of tonality, the Lost Quintet took the hint and dismantled it, getting as close to free jazz as a Miles Davis quintet would. As Gluck shows, Davis had been paying attention to developments on the frontiers of jazz, particularly those of his former sideman John Coltrane but also those of Ornette Coleman, with whom Davis had a complex, often uneasy relationship marked by a sometimes sublimated, sometimes overt competition for leadership of the new music. Gluck shows that Coleman’s use of collective improvisation was a source of inspiration to Davis, and played a role in the Lost Quintet’s move into open forms. With Coleman’s example before them, the group opened up a creative field that Holland and Corea were subsequently to explore further on their own.


By the second half of 1970, Davis was beginning to move toward music centered on firm rhythms and foundational ostinati. After playing the Isle of Wight Festival with him in August, Corea and Holland left Davis to continue pursuing open form music. Earlier in the year they had gotten involved with the Chelsea loft scene—a mix of free jazz sounds and countercultural ambience centered around saxophonist Dave Liebman and others. There they met and formed a trio with drummer Barry Altschul, with whom they recorded the classic The Song of Singing that April. At the Village Vanguard the following month, Anthony Braxton sat in with the trio, and the quartet Circle was born.

Braxton, originally from Chicago’s South Side, had recently spent time in Europe with fellow members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians such as Steve McCall, Leroy Jenkins, Leo Smith and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. While overseas he encountered and played with, among others, the avant garde group Musica Elettronica Viva and forged a long-running musical relationship with experimentalist Richard Teitelbaum. Braxton, whose influences included Cage, Stockhausen and Schoenberg as well as Coltrane and Coleman, would bring into Circle a characteristic blend of adventurous improvisation phrased in the angular language of advanced Western art music.

In tandem with Braxton and Altschul, Corea and Holland took the timbral experiments they had been conducting with Davis and pushed them further, albeit now in an acoustic context. In addition to Braxton’s vast collection of reeds of all ranges, the group drew on the disparate sounds of double bass, cello, acoustic guitar, piano played inside the case, chimes and various other tuned and untuned percussion. Combined with its generally open-textured approach, Circle’s instrumental color and chromatic vocabulary gave it the sound of a new music chamber ensemble improvising collectively—although in concert the quartet might also play the standards Nefertiti or There Is No Greater Love.

Circle dissolved after only a year or so, and the 1970s found its four members taking different directions. Corea went on to play more accessible music, eventually forming the successful electric fusion band Return to Forever. Holland and Altschul played for a while in a trio with Braxton and later became the rhythm section for that epitome of stream-of-consciousness collective improvisation, the mid-1970s Sam Rivers Trio. And Braxton focused on developing his own unique system of combining composition with improvisation.


The third group Gluck considers is the Revolutionary Ensemble. This trio of Leroy Jenkins, Jerome Cooper and Sirone (Norris Jones) was—for the 1970s—highly unorthodox in its makeup, its main instrumentation consisting as it did of violin, percussion and double bass. Like Circle, the Revolutionary Ensemble was formed in New York in 1970. Jenkins and Cooper were back from Europe; Sirone had come from Atlanta. The Ensemble made an early connection to Ornette Coleman, holding initial rehearsals in his studio as well as in the studio of visual artist Fred Brown. Here was another parallel to Circle, which had also gotten its start in a loft milieu. Unlike Circle, though, the Revolutionary Ensemble would for the most part remain in the world of lofts and alternative performance spaces like Joe Papp’s Annex and the Mercer Arts Center, the usual commercial jazz venues being largely closed to them. Despite the lack of a professional organization to promote them, though, the Ensemble was active in the New York area, playing on radio programs, giving concerts and even playing a Sunday afternoon date at the Village Vanguard. They also released five recordings between 1972 and 1977, albeit mostly on small labels.

The group’s style of improvisation, which Gluck describes as the “parallel play” of three musicians playing as individuals, was as unorthodox as its instrumentation and marked one of the outer boundaries of open-form playing.  Early releases and recordings of live performances show the group building improvisations from fully independent lines that exploit the pungent, microtonal possibilities inherent in having two unfretted string instruments playing simultaneously. But the Ensemble could also employ walking bass lines and song forms structured by opening melodies played by both violin and double bass in parallel motion.

Of the three groups Gluck focuses on, the Revolutionary Ensemble was the least integrated into the network of relationships making up the economy of jazz at the time. And yet ironically, it was the longest-lived, lasting from 1970-1977 and then reuniting in the early 2000s. During its initial lifetime, the group showed that performers could get their music out through an alternative infrastructure of noncommercial venues and what we now would call DIY spaces. In this respect, it may have had the most lasting relevance for today’s experimental musicians.


Before now, the stories of the Lost Quintet, Circle and the Revolutionary Ensemble could be pieced together from scattered and sometimes fugitive sources. Gluck’s book is valuable not only for narrating the collective history of a not-well-enough-known moment in exploratory music, but for describing three different ways of settling the field opened up by 1960s experiments in formal organization and instrumentation. Gluck’s analyses of the differences among the three groups, and of the underlying similarities that nevertheless made them commensurate, are astute and make accessible a music that can place great demands on the listener. The inclusion of a detailed timeline and thorough discography helps to situate these three groups precisely within a time that, in retrospect, was uniquely fecund.

Daniel Barbiero

San Francisco Scene: May 27 – June 3, 2016

From the Bay Improviser Calendar:

Friday, May 27

Fri 5/27 7:30 PM Center for New Music [55 Taylor St SF]
Koto Music
Shoko Hikage, Noriko Tsuboi and Yuki Yasuda will perform koto music works by Chappell Kingsland, Hyo-shin Na, and Tadao Sawai.

Fri 5/27 9:00 PM Legionnaire Saloon [2272 Telegraph Ave. oakland, CA]
Voltage Drop – Industrial / Electronics Dance Club Presents
V:4 with live sets by
NINE (Nihar Bhatt / Surface Tension)
MAYA SONGBIRD (Ratskin Records / Holy Rocket Ships)
CHATTY MANDRIL (Zachary James Watkins)
Resident Selectors: BONUS BEAST / MALO / KOZI
Doors at 9pm • $5 before 10pm / $7 after • 21 & over

Saturday, May 28

Sat 5/28 12:00 PM Amnesia [853 Valencia St. San Francisco]
One Man Band Orchestra #0 led by Josh Pollock

Sat 5/28 8:30 PM Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture [Gallery 308 2 Marina Blvd SF]
Dada Explodes
Gallery 308
Capturing the avant-garde world of the Dada Movement, “Dada Explodes: A Burst of Sound, Light, and the Absurd” will feature a surreal carnival for the senses. Featuring the music of experimental rock band Impuritan — a blend psychedelic, ambient, punk, noise, shoegaze, and surf/post/space rock — and visuals by filmmaker Anna Geyer, the performance is curated by composer/sound artist David Molina.

Sunday, May 29

Sun 5/29 7:00 PM Episcopal Church of the Incarnation [1750 29th Ave SF]
Join assistant concert master of the San Francisco Symphony, Mark Volkert, violist Nancy Ellis and double bassist Charles Chandler, also from the San Francisco Symphony, and Jan Volkert, principal cellist from the Marin Symphony, in a unique chamber music concert for strings and double bass!

Sun 5/29 8:00 PM Berkeley Arts [2133 University Avenue between Shattuck & Oxford, walking distance from downtown Berkeley BART]
8pm Phillip Greenlief – alto and tenor saxophones; Jordan Glenn – percussion 9 pm Nathan Clevenger Group: Nathan Clevenger – guitar, compositions; Kasey Knudsen – alto saxophone; Cory Wright – tenor saxophone/clarinet/flute; Rachel Condry – bass clarinet/clarinet; Sam Bevan – bass; Jon Arkin – drums/percussion; Jason Levis – drums/percussion

Sun 5/29 9:00 PM Gray Area Art And Technology [2665 Mission St. SF]
UNSEEN series | Resonant Luminance
For Gray Area’s fourth UNSEEN we bring you Resonant Luminance: a night of collaborative video and sound performances with Allison Leigh Holt, Kadet Kuhne, Abandoned Footwear, and Sarah Brady!

Tuesday, May 31

Tue 5/31 7:30 PM CCRMA [660 Lomita Dr. Stanford]
Bryan Day will perform with some new robotic instruments – Displacement Rails and Rotowhisker – and a spherical tape loop machine called the Accumulation Sphere.

Wednesday, June 1

Wed 6/01 8:00 PM Center for New Music [55 Taylor St SF]
Netmoiré creates an energetic and mercurial experience that blends avant-garde free improvisation with electronic, beat-driven music. This performance features Jason Charney and Josh Simmons on laptops, reinterpreting improvisations with saxophonist Nick Zoulek and generative, audio-responsive animation.

Thursday, June 2

Thu 6/02 7:00 PM Octopus Literary Salon [2101 Webster St. #170 Oakland]
Ben Goldberg, Sheldon Brown, Vijay Anderson

Thu 6/02 7:30 PM Center for New Music [55 Taylor St SF]
Snail Meets West is the free jazz duo of indie spacerock musician Azalia Snail of NYC and multi-instrumentalist music maestro Dan West of Los Angeles. The project is inspired by and a tribute to the late great Ornette Coleman. Dan West, who was a student of Grammy Award winning composer/arranger Clare Fischer, has played with Maynard Ferguson, Paula Kelly and Joe Williams. He is a graduate of Cal State Northridge and an alumni of Cal Arts. Snail has learned from studying the great free jazz drummers~~ amongst them, William Hooker and Denardo Coleman.

Thu 6/02 8:00 PM Luggage Store Creative Music Series [1007 Market Street SF]
8pm: Aaron Oppenheim (electronics)
9pm: Matt Davignon (electronics) and Suki O’Kane with possibly another person

Thu 6/02 8:00 PM Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture [2 Marina Blvd SF]
Duets in the Key of Dada: Ackamoor/Molina Duo, Yvette Janine Jackson, David Molina at SFIAF

Thu 6/02 8:00 PM Berkeley Arts [2133 University Avenue Berkeley]
Minsky Duo plays Violin, Piano, and Drums
Nate Bartley (violin) and Monica Chew (piano) present a a wide-ranging program inspired by folktunes to ragtime, with a side of neoclassicism and new music from Aaron Andrew Hunt.

Friday, June 3

Fri 6/03 7:00 PM Berkeley Arts [2133 University Avenue Berkeley]
NextNow’s ALL TOMORROWS’ AFTER PARTIES 2016 benefit/festival – the New/Creative Music Community raising funds to help the homeless and mentally disabled. 3 nights and 2 days of diverse music and sonic arts with some of the best performers locally and internationally…the 4rd year of bringing together the creative spirit giving to a very worth cause. Avant-Rock, Experimental Chamber, Jazz, Improvised, Electro-Acoustic, Neo-Folk, Progressive Post-modern are among the varied style you’ll hear.

Fri 6/03 7:00 PM Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture [Gallery 308 2 Marina Blvd SF]
Borromeo String Quartet – Percussion Quintet
The award-winning Borromeo String Quartet, lauded for its “edge-of-the-seat performances” by the Boston Globe, will present the world premiere of Bay Area composer Hi Kyung Kim’s Percussion Quintet. Featuring guest percussionist William Winant, the performance is sure to further cement Borromeo String Quartet’s standing as one of the most important ensembles of our time.

Fri 6/03 8:00 PM Royce Gallery [2901 Mariposa St SF]
ROOM: RoomKeys
The 2016 ROOM Series begins with an evening of Bay Area keyboard virtuosi playing contemporary music on a variety of black and white keys.
Hadley McCarroll, rob reich, Eric Glick Rieman, Donald Swearingen, Pamela Z

Fri 6/03 9:30 PM Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture [Gallery 308 2 Marina Blvd SF]
Del Sol String Quartet – Del Sol String Quartet
Featuring music of composers from around the world, the concert examines themes that bring us together as human beings. With music by Australian legendary composer Peter Sculthorpe we look to the increasingly distressing issues of global warming and environmental destruction.

Classical Music Listings From The New York Times

Source: The New York Times.

Kettle Corn New Music (Friday and Saturday) “Alice in Wunderbar” is the title of this playful concert featuring Cantata Profana, a mixed voice and instrumental ensemble. Anchoring the program is Unsuk Chin’s zany “Acrostic Wordplay,” which includes texts by Lewis Carroll. Also in the lineup are Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony (Op. 9), in an arrangement by Webern; songs by Ligeti; and a world premiere of Alex Weiser’s “Three Epitaphs.” At 7 p.m., DiMenna Center for Classical Music, 450 West 37th Street, Manhattan, (Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim)

New York Philharmonic Biennial (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday) The second biennial continues with events taking place across the city. Virtuosity and variety are the name of the game on Tuesday when the violinist Jennifer Koh performs short works for solo violin written by more than 30 composers in response to Paganini’s Caprices. On Wednesday, the Orchestra of the League of Composers invites the composer Charles Wuorinen to conduct his own “Flying to Kahani” with the pianist Anne-Marie McDermott. That program also includes new works by Felipe Lara, Paul Moravec and Huck Hodge, conducted by Louis Karchin. And Thursday brings the American stage premiere of Gerald Barry’s madcap Oscar Wilde-opera, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” with Ilan Volkov leading the New York Philharmonic and a cast of talented singers (also next Friday and June 4). The festival continues through June 11 at various times and locations. More information: 212-875-5656, (da Fonseca-Wollheim)

Roulette (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday) Two years ago the trumpeter Nate Wooley unveiled “Argonautica,” a mesmerizing musical retelling of the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece. Monday’s performance celebrates the release of the recording. On Tuesday, Ensemble Pamplemousse offers a kaleidoscope of works by composers who probe the boundaries between acoustic and electronic sounds. And on Thursday, the violinist Jennifer Choi teams up with Talujon Percussion for a reading of Lou Harrison’s brilliant Concerto for Violin and Percussion, part of an evening exploring the influence of the Indonesian gamelan in Western music. At 8 p.m., Roulette, 509 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, 917-267-0363, (da Fonseca-Wollheim)