The roots from which a jazz musician grows are important and interesting to follow, and since virtually the entire history of jazz has been captured by recording technology we can hear the players that other players listened to, followed, imitated, and then moved away from. Saxophonists learn by playing Charlie Parker solos transcribed off his records, and Parker himself can be heard playing a capella in imitation of Coleman Hawkins on a very rough, historic disc. The history in these archives keeps us oriented in the music, tells us where we came from and where we are.
Except when Henry Threadgill plays. No matter how many times you’ve heard one of his recordings, the first moments of listening again can be a disorienting experience. Where did he come from? Where is he going? What is he doing? His music is both familiar and strange, accessible and inscrutable, physically grooving and deeply abstract. He is a great and important musician, but the qualities that make him so are elusive. It takes close, concentrated listening to discern what’s going on, but since his records are consistently so strong and interesting, that listening is a real pleasure.
Threadgill has always been a protean artist, and his new disc, This Brings Us To, Volume 1, with his ensemble Zooid, is both the culmination of his long exploration of his own roots and a signpost on his road forward. (A second volume is expected this summer.) Threadgill’s roots grow directly from 19th-century American music, bypassing the most familiar and popular styles in jazz, and flower into an idiom that is simultaneously archaic and contemporary. Threadgill does with American music what Allen Ginsburg did with Walt Whitman. This is explicit on some of his records—his trio Air, with Fred Hopkins on bass and Steve McCall playing drums, was dedicated to both the avant-garde edge of free improvisation and a joyous, bumptious reappraisal of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. In an art based on improvisation, the line between these two apparently disparate worlds is a short one. Free improvisation of one kind or another was where much of progressive jazz was at in the 1970s, but ragtime music and marches are where Threadgill has always been—especially marches: His series of records with his seven-member Sextett is full of them. But since in 21st century America most people’s experience of marches takes place at college football games, some explication is in order. The march is originally utilitarian, social music, meant to literally keep people, like soldiers, moving in coordination through time. It eventually became a form used in concert music in Europe, and an important form of bourgeois ceremonial and concert music in 19th century America.
March music can also be heard in Scott Joplin’s rags, and it’s integral to many of the building blocks of 19th century European-American and African-American popular music. Slow it down, play it under a blues, and you have the dirge of a New Orleans funeral band passing down the street; speed it up, put it into an ABACD song form, and you have dances like the two-step, the cakewalk, and the music of Jelly Roll Morton. This perspective helps clarify Threadgill’s sound, but it doesn’t make it less surprising, or less pleasantly jarring.
The other disorienting aspect of Threadgill’s approach to jazz history is his bringing the 19th century directly into the late 20th. His records with Air and the Sextett skip swing, bebop, and hard bop, and pick up the jazz story again with free jazz. (This is most explicit in his wonderful Society Situation Dance Band—sadly unrecorded, although there are a few videos of the group on YouTube.) This decade-hopping style is unique in jazz: not even Sun Ra goes as far into the past as the raw, loose-limbed, powerful sound of “Bermuda Blues” from You Know the Number, the sweet yet mournful dirge of “Soft Suicide at the Baths,” which concludes When Was That?, or the entirety of the challenging and brilliant Rag, Bush and All, which, in the way it seems to capture the angry joy, bitterness, and frustration of African-American culture, the basic insanity of being both so integral to and so shunned by society, could serve as the soundtrack for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It’s the motto of the AACM put into sound, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future!”
Threadgill’s next band, Very Very Circus, changed his sound but not his method on 1991’s Spirit of Nuff...Nuff. The old-time roots are stretched into a post-fusion sound that is dark and lean. Threadgill’s familiar, biting alto sax and dark-toned flute, Gene Lake’s drums, and Curtis Fowlkes’s trombone are now joined by two electric guitars (played by Brandon Ross and Mashujaa) and two tubas (Marcus Rojas and Edwin Rodriguez). The low brass produces an enormous body of sound without weighing the music down, and the guitars give the tunes a caustic edge. There’s plenty of improvisation and non-swinging jazz groove, but all the familiar forms and structures are still there: blues, fanfares, episodic marches, and musical statements that identify each piece and are repeated, after solos, to bring the track to a close. The sound is still without peer, but it isn’t structurally beyond the history of jazz. There is a tension at the heart of it, though, between Threadgill’s creatively archaic compositions and his own improvising, which is outside the mainstream idea of development in jazz and Western music. His pieces may have a beginning, a middle, and an end that essentially repeats that beginning, but his own playing is stabbing, lateral, not working against the music but digging at the limits in between. He’s like a hiker in a group who stops to marvel at a site along the path while the others head on, knowing he’ll rejoin them.
This tension gradually began to resolve itself into a melding of Threadgill’s personal playing style with a compositional technique that promised something altogether new. After being dropped by Columbia, Threadgill debuted at his current label, Pi, with the simultaneous issue in 2001 of two CDs from two different ensembles. Everybodys [sic] Mouth’s a Book was the last from his most straightforward ensemble, Make A Move, and Up Popped the Two Lips the first from Zooid. Everybodys marked the end of his electric period but the start of a very new compositional method. Some tracks seem familiar, but others, like “Platinum Inside Straight” and “Burnt Til Recognition,” are more mysterious: There’s clearly some organizing method at work, but it’s impossible to discern what that is. There is the feeling of a structure that moves horizontally through numerous parallel lines, but without forming a large-scale repetitive form or even any particular theme. The accompaniment often sounds like a series of solos, and the reasons the band moves from one phrase to another are not clear. The Zooid CD pushes this further, sometimes unsuccessfully but always with the sense that the music is trying to go someplace new. With the horn, the drive and groove, the solos and interaction, it sounds like jazz, but the syntax is something new.
Threadgill’s band has maintained the core of Liberty Ellman’s guitar, Jose Davila’s trombone and tuba, and Elliot Humberto Kavee’s drums since that time, through intermittent concert appearances and one limited-edition LP, Pop Start the Tape, Stop. On This Brings Us To, they sound fully formed, focused, and in comprehension of Threadgill’s compositional method, which is complex, challenging, and something truly new in jazz. As described by Threadgill and Ellman in a fascinating post at Nate Chinen’s blog The Gig, the method that Threadgill calls The System is based on the intervals inherent within the structure of individual chords. The distances between the notes govern the possible direction and distance from that same chord that the music, and the musicians, can go. There are roughly melodic phrases as well, and a great beat, but it’s nothing like the song structure and head–solos–head arrangements of the vast majority of jazz tunes. It’s also nothing like the jazz compositions of Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus, or even Stan Kenton, which are still working inside that song-form idea. There have been attempts to graft aspects of classical composition onto jazz, but none very successful. Threadgill’s approach is like the adaption of aleatoric methods into traditional composition by twentieth-century composer Witold Lutoslawski: It’s a way to make music that sounds like jazz, that rocks and grooves the body like jazz, but is put together via means totally outside anything that has ever existed in jazz. This could make Threadgill the first jazz Composer with a capital C.
Still, this is all just an intellectual exercise until the tape starts or the audience is seated; what matters is the experience of the music. In Threadgill’s case, that experience can be challenging and even daunting at first, but it always promises great satisfaction. His current band, with Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, brings polyphonic interplay to an extraordinarily high level. In their playing there is a sense of a reduction between foreground and background; the easy, and immediate, passing back and forth between solo and accompaniment for all the instruments delivers on the conceptual promise of Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics. Ellman is a real star in this ensemble, not only with his smart, pithy improvisations, but with his accompaniment of the other soloists. He mainly plays lines rather than chords, which leaves plenty of open space, keeps the sound lean, and maintains a sensation of agitated probing. The group’s solos are like comments on the ensemble interplay, as the ensemble encourages the soloists.
The opening track on This Brings Us To, “White Wednesday Off the Wall,” is slow and puzzling, like a koan. It makes a statement that it doesn’t bother to resolve. The disc’s grooving begins with “To Undertake My Corners Open,” featuring two brilliant guitar riffs and a throbbing bass pulse. “Chairmaster” translates the old flavor of the march into Threadgill’s new technique, while the barely comprehensible but completely hip “Sap” seems to be the clearest musical depiction of his structural method, opening with an extended free-improvisation section before hitting a wicked groove. The disc’s closing track, “Mirror Mirror the Verb,” seems an equally abstract answer to the first track’s question.
While This Brings Us To can be dense and cryptic, when performing live Threadgill’s band is full of intensity, wit, and a real dedication to driving the music out to the audience. On stage they strike the ideal balance between the physical pleasure of playing and the intellectual challenge of playing correctly. It’s irrelevant to think of the music as good or bad: It sets out a challenging course for itself and succeeds at it. Work this unique and groundbreaking is usually not the most amiable companion, but the brilliance of Threadgill’s musicianship is that, like a great poet, he elicits the desire to understand his music, and to listen to it again and again.
GEORGE GRELLA is the publisher of the Big City Blog and writes frequently about music for the Rail, where he covers the Brooklyn Philharmonic beat.