Henry Threadgill Deep Dive

threadgill-hatCheck out this 2011 interview with Henry Threadgill, who of course won a Pulitzer Prize last week. The interviewer is Ethan Iverson, pianist for The Bad Plus and an authoritative new-music thinker and blogger, whose specialties go deeply into jazz history, music theory, and classical music.

It’s some serious stuff. Iverson had to “audition” to Threadgill over the phone before doing the interview — and this was a BBC3-sponsored interview, not a case of some guy calling up to say “Hey, talk to me for my blog.” And even if it was, Iverson certainly isn’t just “some guy.”

You can understand Threadgill’s concerns when you read his explanations of the Zooid band and the musical language that the players studied for a year before performing in public. He composed in a way that abandoned major/minor concepts, to open up the space for freedom — but not absolute freedom. There were still rules:

It has nothing to do with serialism at all. In serialism, you have a series of notes. Could be 12 notes, five notes, whatever the series is. Well, this is a series of intervals; the first series is five, then four, and the next one is seven, and the next one three, and the next eight, and the next four, and every one of them is different and they exist for period of time. The written music that’s on the paper, everything is moving according to that. Not necessarily every interval that is up there, but when we improvise, we can take a lot of liberties because that is what the musicians have learned how to do. Now the players with me, they can do anything they want to do, because if you understand what you can and cannot do, then that means you can do everything since you understand those two things.

As for why Iverson had to audition, it’s because Threadgill wanted to carry on a conversation in terms like this:

One piece of harmony can have as many as 14 faces. … Let’s say the sound of C, C-sharp, F-sharp; it can have the face of G, C, E-flat, maybe. It can have the sound of E-flat, F, E. It can have the sound of F-sharp, G-sharp, A — because it comes from a family. This family is like your biological family, like your brothers, sisters, mother and father all share DNA, it is the same thing. This has nothing to do with major/minor substitution

Do I hear all of that on the Zooid albums? Did I hear anything equally deep when I saw Threadgill’s Double-Up perform in February? I’m aware of a sense of structure, of a background order that’s keeping things together — and I’m aware of a sound, in the macro sense, meaning you can tell by ear that this is Henry Threadgill’s Zooid and not some other band or bandleader.

I can tell something’s there, even if the details are beyond me.

All of this leaves me feeling even more inadequate than usual when I look back on my previous Zooid review, where I said things like “Gosh there’s no chords” or “gee I hear afropop.” It’s easy to feel like a big shot when reviewing music; easier still for the musician to make the reviewer feel like an idiot.