Mary Halvorson's guitar tone probably isn't for everyone. Using odd tuning, off-balance fretboard runs and a penchant for bending notes in such a way that half her instrument seems to be slipping out of focus, Halvorson doesn't sound like anyone's complete impression of jazz, rock or noise. Which is precisely what makes her essential.
One of the most talked about talents on New York City's fertile scene, the Boston-born Halvorson has performed with Marc Ribot, Jason Moran and, for an extended stint, Anthony Braxton. Halvorson has released a number of bewitching albums with a trio, quartet and even a septet (try last year's brassy and expansive "Illusionary Sea"); her sometimes chaotic twists on where jazz guitar ventures is a challenge, but she's never sounded so approachable as with the intimidatingly named Thumbscrew. Teamed with bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Halvorson still has every bit of her signature, slippery drive, but the trio's powers combine for an album that retains a sharp yet still searching focus.
Rising out of a pointillist toe dance from Halvorson, "Cheap Knock Off" builds to a chugging boil, her crisp tone careening into metallic drive as the rhythm section gamely swirls around her. Formanek, whose recent ECM albums have similarly balanced melody and controlled mayhem, anchors "Fluid Hills in Pink" with a thick, ascending bassline as Halvorson counters with a mix of high-pitched tangles and slippery echoes.
A steady march from Fujiwara in "Nothing Doing" carries the trio for a brief peek into Sonic Youth's backyard, while the wryly named "Still … Doesn't Swing" hinges his steady brushwork as Halvorson switches between taut, single-note ascents and growling noise-rock. Its title may have a point, but Thumbscrew isn't missing a thing. (Thumbscrew performs Tuesday at the Blue Whale, 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St., Suite 301, L.A. 9 p.m. $15. http://www.bluewhalemusic.com.)
Three and a half stars
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