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.

Henry Threadgill Won a Pulitzer

medalblackbackground236It’s nice that Hamilton won a Pulitzer and all, but the real thing to celebrate is that Henry Threadgill won one.

In the category for music, the Pulitzers honored In for a Penny, in for a Pound, last year’s double CD from Threadgill’s Zooid group. It’s only the third jazz honoree, the last one being Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar in 2007 and Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields in 1997.

The award is a nice bit of recognition for Threadgill, one of the surviving pioneers of the AACM and a contemporary of New York’s loft-jazz era. It’s also a feather in the cap of Pi Recordings, which has been consistent in celebrating fresh and innovative jazz. (Some might call it too academic, which is fair — but me, I eat that stuff up.)

threadgill-pennyIn for a Penny It is highly improvised, but it’s far from random — like Cecil Taylor’s music, it has a sound. There’s strategy and organization to the chugging, bubbling rhythm, and the players are Threadgill veterans who have built up the intuition and mental muscle memory to execute it (seemingly) with ease.

If there’s one difference from other Zooid albums, it’s in song structure. The four long pieces making up the bulk of the album are mini-suites; there are pauses where the band takes a breath and then moves into some new mood or style. Threadgill was going for an ambitious, epic scope, and it works.

For more reading, check out Nate Chinen’s report for The New York Times — richly written, as always. And do take a moment to read the Pulitzer committee’s announcement. The jury in this case was chaired by Julia Wolfe (Bang on a Can) and included violinist Regina Carter. They know their stuff.

So, is Henry Threadgill going to rest on his laurels? Of course not. He’s already got another album out.

Cheers for Henry Threadgill

Threadgill at Yerba Buena. Via fullyaltered on Instagram.
Threadgill at Yerba Buena. Via fullyaltered on Instagram.

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.

Source: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Source: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

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.

Double-Up, plus Melford and Yrigoyan. Photo posted by David Bryant (@dblaque_MUSIC) on Twitter.
Double-Up, plus Melford and Yrigoyan. Photo posted by David Bryant (@dblaque_MUSIC) on Twitter.