AMN Reviews: Thumbscrew – The Anthony Braxton Project (2020; Cuneiform Records)

Thumbscrew is guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara (who also doubles on vibes), and bassist Michael Formanek. All have extensively performed or recorded with Anthony Braxton over the last couple of decades. Therefore, it is no surprise that they would collectively decide to provide an album of “covers” to celebrate Braxton’s 75th birthday. But there was no intent to make this release a best-of about Braxton’s more well-known pieces. Instead, Halvorson stated that “[t]he 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).”

Going by Braxton’s opus numbers, most of the selected pieces are numbered less 70, which would place their years of origin before about 1975 or so. And indeed, even as someone who has listened to a great deal of Braxton (though will not claim anything resembling encyclopedic knowledge) few of these compositions seemed familiar upon first listen.

That is, while Braxton’s signature knotty rhythmic structures may suggest the composer, only one of the pieces screamed “Braxton” to these ears. This was Composition 61, which begins by the group exploring variations on a 5-note theme before it breaks out into controlled improvisation. Halvorson, Fujiwara, and Formanek add their own favor. Halvorson provides speed picking and note twisting, while Fujiwara’s supple yet intense snare work is a canvas upon which Formanek explores the extent of his bass without establishing a clear rhythm.  The three go in and out of synch with each other in a masterful fashion, such that the richness of this three-minute offering makes it seem much longer.

To that point, the sheer diversity of the structural and textural elements at play across these 11 pieces can be overwhelming.  Composition 68 features slow atmospherics, almost in a twisted folk style.  Composition 35 is outside-oriented with Fujiwara on vibes and winds up with an intricate and percussive modern chamber feel.  Composition 14 is presented three times, once for each instrumentalist performing solo. Of particular note is how Fujiwara makes his take harken to Varese yet captures Braxton’s playfulness.

Needless to say, trying to comprehend Braxton’s intellect through these recordings will keep you up late at night. Luckily, the compositions – and the performances herein – operate on many levels, and can be enjoyed on their face with further enlightenment achieved through repeated active listens.  With Braxton75 performances on hold worldwide for the moment, The Anthony Braxton Project is a more than a suitable substitute to get your Braxton fix. Very strong recommendation.

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