Monday, August 10, 2020

CD Review: Thumbscrew - The Anthony Braxton Project & Michael Formanek Quartet - Pre-Apocalyptic

The Anthony Braxton Project

Michael Formanek Quartet

To celebrate Anthony Braxton's 75th birthday, a band could express their wishes for the composer/reed master in several ways. The group Topas (profiled by yours truly in the September 2020 issue of JazzTimes) devoted half of their debut album to compositions by Braxton from the '70s and '80s. Since interpreting Anthony Braxton is much different that interpreting Charlie Parker, for instance, the music relies just as much on the interpreters' personality as much as the sketches that they utilize. Although a piece like "Composition 23B," (a reworking of Parker's "Donna Lee") could be done a relatively straightforward manner. 

Thumbscrew - the trio of Mary Halvorson (guitar), Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums, vibraphone, percussion) - went one bold step further for The Anthony Braxton Project. Rather than pull out personal Braxton favorites or some "greatest hits," (I'm sure Braxton heads consider some this way) the trio chose nine compositions that have rarely been performed and, with a few exceptions, have never been recorded. 

The potential for such a project could be overwhelming in scope but the trio found works that adapted to their instrumentation. Whether or not they had this goal in mind, the set reveals a good deal about Braxton's musical mindframe, with moods that goes from abstract to works that have a serious swing to them. The opening "Composition 52" has a theme that moves somewhat like a mutant bop line, coming to a quick stop after Halvorson and Formanek play it in unison. Of course that's just the opening and closing moments. What comes in between are bent guitar lines, a bass tries out a groove quickly and drums that also have a groove.

Each member of the group gets a chance to tackle "Composition 14" alone, coming up with a performances that sound vastly from the other two: Havorson bends and loops notes that dangle in the air; Fujiwara creates a composition for drums rather than a solo, with mallets on toms; and Formanek begins pensively and builds to a rich climax.

Fujiwara often moves between vibes and trap kit, adding strong definition to pieces like "Composition 68" rousing it from a dreamscape quality. "Composition 150" might be the "jazziest" tune of the set, thanks to a walking bass line underneath the clean vibes. The trio also tapes into Braxton's Ghost Trance series with "Composition No. 274." Things begin and end with the players moving in staccato lock step (on an angular melody that moves like Monk's "Evidence") but pulls in three directions shortly thereafter.

In addition to the engrossing set of music (which was recorded here in Pittsburgh at Mr. Smalls Studios, like several Thumbscrew albums), the Braxton Project booklet contains large renderings of the images that serve as the "official" composition titles. While some continue the tradition of geometric shapes and numbers attached to them, "Composition No. 150" depicts a street scene of buildings and trucks while "Composition No. 157" features a primitive rendering of a basketball game. They have to be seen to be fully appreciated. (My graphic limitations prevent that from happening here.) Never let it be said that Anthony Braxton doesn't know how to have fun. Hopefully he had a good birthday.

Michael Formanek's writing skills have received as much praise as his bass playing thanks to his ECM albums Small Places and The Rub and Spare Change, both recorded with a quartet that included Gerald Cleaver (drums), Craig Taborn (piano) and Tim Berne (alto saxophone). In fact - for what it's worth - both album received five star reviews in downbeat, a distinction usually reserved only for lost John Coltrane albums and the like. 

But one listen to Pre-Apocalyptic reveals why that group received such kudos. Recorded live "somewhere in 2014," the disc depicts a band on fire, playing a set drawn largely from those two albums. Formanek's opening bass solo on "Rising Tensions and Awesome Light" is worth the price of the album, but that's just the beginning. with a roaring solo from Taborn just around the corner.

Berne as always plays with invention but he comes across as a little more methodical than usual. He digs deeper into Formanek's compositions, staying away from the brawny wails of his own work, though he does emit some altissimo wails in "Twenty Three Neo." The duet of him and Formanek on "The Distance" (first recorded with the large group Ensemble Kolossus) sounds stunning. Listening to pieces like "Pong," where the accents seem to shift the focus away from its 6/8 base, or "Intro and Real Action," a previously unreleased tune, inspire me to pull those earlier albums off the shelf to rediscover them. 

OOYH is releasing the album digitally only. The sound might not be studio clean (some of the bass presence and Cleaver's sound each lose a little depth), it retains the "you-are-there" immediacy of the recording, live in a good room.

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