Patterns Inside Henry Threadgill’s Zooid

Henry Threadgill’s Zooid — This Brings Us To, Vol. I (Pi Recordings, 2009)

I haven’t read all the reviews, interview, and commentary about Henry Threadgill’s Zooid — not the current album nor the pair released eight years ago — so I might be saying something that’s already been said to death or that’s drop-dead wrong.

But here goes: Isn’t there a bit of an Afropop sound to the whole thing?

Maybe I’m too keyed in to Libery Ellman’s guitar sound.  It’s light and bouncy, like the electric guitars and basses of Afropop.  The thought occurred to me while listening to the crazy guitar figure, apparently composed, that Ellman puts forth on “To Undertake My Corners Open.”  The distinction from Afropop is that Ellman travels in unpredictable lines, with lots of poking angles and sudden kinetic swerves.

But overall, Zooid presents a bustling, busy flow of music, free and coreless (no chords, no central melody) but with a common heartbeat that drives every instrument. You could dance to this stuff, or at least do a kind of primitive hopping, because all five instruments keep to that rhythm. It’s a free-jazz toe-tapper.

As for the band itself, here’s the explanation from the onesheet:

A zooid is a cell that is able to move independent of the larger organism to which it belongs, an apt description of the musical language that Threadgill has developed for this band. The compositions are organized along a series of interval blocks comprised of three notes, ech of which is assigned to a musician, who is free to move around within these intervals …

In other words, it’s a structured group improvisation built around musical seeds but lacking any adherence to chords or scales. As I was saying, there’s a shared rhythm element that binds everything together.

Add to that the unlikely mix of instruments.  There’s flute and trombone alongside the guitar on the first two tracks of This Brings Us To, Vol. I.  After that, it’s sax and tuba — with Jose Davila‘s tuba dancing as lightly as it can, putting up a constantly bouncing, pinging flow of notes on tracks like “Chairmaster” (where Davila seems more like a lead voice; no oom-pah boredom here!)  Stomu Takeishi plays a bass guitar that might even be acoustic; it’s hard to tell amid the jumble, but he adds a good, swaying sound, either way.  And former Bay Area player Elliot Humberto Kavee does a terrific turn on drums.

You can get a lot more insight into this album from the preview that Destination:OUT posted in September.  Hey, I didn’t say I’d read none of the information that’s out there!  I like his point about keeping the CD at just 39 minutes.  Some people might feel ripped off, but that’s a plentiful music slice, and how many times have you gotten restless at the 11th track or 54th minute of a CD?