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.

Letters to Home

darrenjohnston-ybcaLast month, I made brief mention of Darren Johnston‘s upcoming “Letters to Home” concert. Well, it’s time.

On Saturday, June 22 at 1:00 p.m., Johnston’s band and a choir will take the outdoor stage to perform songs based on stories from immigrants. The official blurb goes like this:

“Letters to Home,” by composer Darren Johnston, with choreography by Erika Shuch, will be the inaugural piece for The Trans-Global People’s Chorus, a multi-generational choir that utilizes stomping, clapping and snapping along with vocal arrangements, and a stellar horn section. The songs feature a libretto composed by Johnston, using selected phrases from a collection of letters written by a broad cross-section of immigrants living in the Bay Area. The TGPC is composed of some of the top vocalists and performers around, such as up-and-coming Tiffany Austin, the Pacific Mambo Orchestra’s Alexa Morales, and jazz luminaires such as Howard Wiley and Jazz Mafia “don” Adam Theis, along with the incredible talents of the students of Oakland School for the Arts, High and Middle School, and Rooftop Middle, and Elementary School.

Judging from the songs Johnston performed at the Starry Plough recently, these songs will be a combination of jazz, world musics, and gypsy stylings, sometimes soulful and upbeat, sometimes outright heartbreaking. It seems to be a project close to Johnston’s heart, and it should make for quite a concert.

Necessary Carla Kihlstedt

Carla Kihlstedt continues to rack up the uncategorizable projects. Witness:

Her Necessary Monsters will debut July 29 and 30 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.  It’s a song cycle based on a catalog of humanity’s imagined creatures, by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and the stage show includes lots of dress-up costumes and apparently some dramatic elements. It looks pretty darned cool.


You can actually participate in the second half of this project, The Bestiary! Details here.

UPDATE: Turns out you can participate in Necessary Monsters, too. There’s a Kickstarter page to fund musician expenses, the printing of a libretto, and the documentation of the project in pictures and video.

Still You Lay Dreaming: Tales from the Stage II is a set of music written for dance productions. A collaboration betweek Kihlstedt and husband Matthias Bossi, the album is a followup to Ravish. It’s a digital-only release, ushering in The Age of the Absence of Objects, as Kihlstedt called it in a recent newsletter. Listen and buy at Bandcamp.

Tin Hat continues to branch out. Originally Tin Hat Trio, with enough gypsy-sounding influence to be signed by Angel Records, the band has added trumpeter Ara Anderson and harpist Zeena Parkins (both have moved on) and clarinetist Ben Goldberg (still in there) … and now they’re singing lyrics based on the poems of e.e. cummings. This East Bay Express article explains. The songs are dreamy and drifting, but not necessarily slow; Kihlstedt has posted two of the songs on YouTube — here and here, or link from the Tin Hat news page. An album is in progress.

Domes in SF: Charming Hostess & The Bowls Project

I’m reading about wood, steel, and earthquake reinforcements.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is building an installation called The Bowls Project, which will house some musical events but will otherwise sit out in the open, just there near Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, for several weeks this summer. Charming Hostess is involved, which automatically makes this cool. Trio singing, Jewish history, and steel, together at last.

Now, The Bowls Project also happens to be the title of a new Charming Hostess album on Tzadik. But the Bowls Project at Yerba Buena is much more: an art installation and a venue for some music shows.

Here’s the explanation at the Yerba Buena Web site:

Housed within a stunning double-vaulted masonry dome created by celebrated architect Michael Ramage and featuring videography by multi-media artist Shezad Dawood, The Bowls Project creates an intimate, powerful and satisfying intersection between the ancient and modern worlds. The dome is a private place to share secrets and public forum to hear live music on Thursdays, participate in rituals on Fridays and encounter embodied text on Sundays.

Charming Hostess is Jewlia Eisenberg’s band, and while its size, shape, and sound have varied, its core has always been a core trio of female vocalists capable of stunning, intertwining harmonies.  (Past singers have included Jenny Scheinman and Carla Kihlstedt.)  In the past, the band was fleshed out by members of what’s now Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, putting an aggressive rock stance on the sound. Their live shows were parties, featuring lock-step musicianship and a dash of punk abandon.

As for the music itself, it drew from Balkan and Jewish traditions, but also from modern sources, even country music, all of it driven by Eisenberg’s propulsive musical direction. Some songs are bright and bouncy (“Ferret Said” was always a favorite of mine) but others draw from a deep emotional well. Their version of “Long Black Veil” was energetic, rocking, and also a tear-jerker.

Charming Hostess and guests will be performing at the Bowls Project on Thursday evenings from July 15 to Aug. 19, and it’s all going to kick off with Eisenberg leading a musical procession and dedication ceremony at noon on Tuesday, July 6. You can read more of the schedule, including non-musical events at the Bowls, here.

That link also includes a few songs from the new Charming Hostess album.  Two rocking tracks, two serious ones — it sounds terrific.