Henry Threadgill didn’t play a note at his recent Yerba Buena Center for the Arts performance, but the audience didn’t mind. He was rewarded with enthusiastic applause before and after his performance as he grinned ear-to-ear.
Threadgill can still play, of course. It’s just that his new septet, Double-Up, puts him in he role of composer and director rather than sax player. It’s not much different from the concert I saw with The Dreamers, a John Zorn band where Zorn composes and conducts, rather than playing.
In concept, Double-Up (two pianos, two saxophones, cello, tuba, and drums) is a tribute to Butch Morris, a friend of Threadgill’s who pioneered conduction, the shaping of orchestral improvisations into cohesive, on-the-spot pieces. But as Threadgill pointed out to journalist Andrew Gilbert, Double-Up isn’t meant to be conduction. Threadgill provides composed charts and is on hand more like a base coach than a conductor.
The applause he received was certainly directed at the performance — two long suites full of life — but it was also a pent-up outpouring for a man who plays out here only rarely, if ever. Threadgill was getting a little extra joy from people like me who were just glad he was there.
Threadgill was happy to be there, too. Minute before opening curtain, he was still wandering the lobby, smiling broadly as he spotted and greeted old friends.
He’d been coaxed to San Francisco by former student Myra Melford and Yerba Buena music curator Isabel Yrigoyen to open the New Frequencies Fest, a three-day celebration of creative jazz. The stage would later be occupied by big-name guests such as Matana Roberts and Satoko Fujii, and also by generous cross-sections of Bay Area talent: Karl Evangelista and Grex; Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait and Switch; Melford herself, performing with Joëlle Léandre and Nicole Mitchell; and Ben Goldberg’s Orphic Machine.
But opening night was all Threadgill. It was short — I overheard someone commenting they would have enjoyed hearing a third piece, and I have to agree. But it was grand.
The first piece was a colossal jazz suite. The tonalities had that Threadgill flavor to them, partly through the composing and partly through the use of two low-end players steeped in Threadgill’s music: cellist Christopher Hoffman and tuba player Jose Davila. The two pianists were allowed nearly free reign, however, so David Virelles and a second pianist (who wasn’t listed in the program) sometimes dipped into small stretches of velvety, lush colors you’d associate more with straightahead jazz. They started the piece with a lengthy free improvisation, just the two of them, each keyboard taking the lead for a long stretch to paint an angular, contemplative canvas.
At shows like this, people struggle with the dichotomy between the jazz listener who applauds the solos and the art patron who stays patiently silent while the artists make their statement. The Yerba Buena audience took a while to decide which way to go. So, as the piano segment gave way to the composed piece, and as Davila took the first solo — some rock solid work on tuba — everyone stayed silent. It wasn’t until later in the piece that we all decided we’d applaud the solos, and the theater warmed up considerably from there.
Threadgill dictated the sequence of solos — I think he might have chosen every soloist, in fact. I remember Curtis Macdonald delivering a particularly rowdy alto sax solo, as if to stir the crowd into action, and Hoffman sawing mightily on the cello. Craig Weinrib’s drum solo, played off of the crowd’s early silence, starting with isolated taps and long pauses before very slowly building into a firestorm.
That first piece had plenty of jazz swing in it — of the Threadgill variety, anyway. The second piece added a dose of academia. It was just a bit slower and followed a more deliberate melodic path, calling upon a different set of instincts for players and listeners alike. It wasn’t an overly difficult piece, just different, an exercise of a different muscle.
What’s interesting is that neither piece felt entirely like a Henry Threadgill piece. Or, more specifically: Double-Up sounds distinctively different from Zooid, Threadgill’s ensemble of the past few years. My guess is that by giving the players such free reign, he aims to create a new sound amalgamated from all their ideas. The group’s personality seemed to pull in different directions at times — that uncomfortable feeling that Piece A and Piece B don’t really mesh to form a suite — but maybe that’s part of the formula.