Thumbscrew

Convallaria
Cuneiform Records Rune 415

By Ken Waxman

Probably improvised music’s most celebrated guitarist at present, Mary Halvorson has attained the position because of her individuality as well as her ability. Like an actor who moves effortlessly between comedy and drama, Halvorson is equally proficient playing solo or in large ensembles, but her best work is done in intimate circumstances. While her dynamic strokes often define a tune’s parameters, her styling is particularly notable during Convallaria’s 11 selections when her light-fingered invention is complemented by bassist Michael Formanek’s chunky thumps. She’s like a painter preparing a pencil, sketch with the bassist there to add color and depth. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara provides a backbeat when needed, but generally uses his rolls and cymbal clicks as if he was a high class publicist: making the others look good without drawing attention to himself.

The key to the ripened interaction displayed here is how most tunes retain an undercurrent of cultured swing in any circumstances. This doesn’t make the session smooth jazz by any stretch of the imagination though. Since the session is named for the scientific label of the sweetly scented but also poisonous woodland plant also known as Lily of the Valley hidden – and sometimes not-so-hidden –prickliness galvanizes the date.

Although she uses the same six-string throughout, Halvorson can sound folksy and almost acoustic, as on “Sampsonian Rhythms” or spew out opaque chording and flanges on “Screaming Piha”, where her electronically enhanced judders are such that her pumped up chords appear to be searching for a Heavy Metal connection. Despite this and Fujiwara’s busy resounds, the bassist’s sophisticated downward string sluices move everyone’s output into overlapping interaction. Throughout, Formanek’s intertwining motions provide the perfect backdrop for the guitarist, with her timbres freely resembling those of a saxophone (on “Tail of the Sad Dog”) or a mandolin (as on “Trigger”). With composing credits divided almost equally among the three, it seems obvious that this Thumbscrew project warrants two thumbs up.

-For The Whole Note December 2016