by Dave Kaufman (November '97)
Henry Threadgill is one of the great musical masterminds of the past quarter century- a composer, arranger, and innovator who transcends genres in contemporary music. Threadgill, a multi instrumentalist whose principle axes include alto sax and flute, emerged from Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This outfit is best known for producing The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton, both similarly minded musicians who stretch the rather elastic boundaries of avant-garde jazz. Threadgill was founder of the seminal trio Air, which also included bassist Fred Hopkins and the late great Steve McCall on drums. They are best known for Air Lore, a reverent, but decidedly unique interpretation of the compositions of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin. Air lasted from the early '70s until the mid-80s, recording on the order of 8 to 10 albums.
In the mid-80's, Threadgill formed his Sextett (actually a 7 piece group) which included cornettist Olu Dara, trombonists Frank Lacy and Craig Harris, cellist Diedre Murray and drummers Reggie Nicholson and Pheeroan Aklaff among others. They played music steeped in a wide range of Afro-American genres from New Orleans Jazz to Rhythm & Blues to Gospel to Mingus with strands of calypso music thrown in for good measure. This was a free-swinging group that recorded 6 stellar albums, including 3 of the very best recordings of 1980s, most notably Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket, You Know the Number (perhaps the best and most accessible album Threadgill has ever recorded) and Easily Slip into a New World.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Threadgill formed Very Very Circus (VVC), a septet that has included two tuba players (Edwin Rodrigues and Marcus Rojas), two guitars (including the great Brandon Ross, who in significant respects, is the architect of Cassandra Wilson's recent commercial and artistic success), Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Ted Daniels on trumpet, Gene Lake and Pheeroan Aklaff on drums. This group represented a radical jazz departure even by Threadgill's standards. VVC fused the music of avant-garde jazz, funk, salsa, and East European marches into a highly original sound that was far more than the sum of it's influences. They made 5 albums, including the landmark recording Too Much Sugar for a Dime, one of the greatest recordings of the last 25 years (this would easily rank as one of my desert island disks. VVC was the greatest twin tuba/twin guitar septet in jazz history, and probably the only one). At this point in time, Threadgill began to experiment with fully composed music that left very little room for improvisation. Some of these recordings include rather exotic instrumentation creating an unusual blend of timbres, and highly intricate arrangements.
Henry Threadgill and the Make a Move band perform edat Yoshi's in Oakland California the week of October 15 to 19 (1997). I was very fortunate to catch them on opening night and witness a superb performance! Make a Move includes long-time Threadgill sideman Brandon Ross on guitars, Tony Cedras on harmonium and accordion (he's also played with Threadgill for several years), Stomu Takeishi on electric bass (he played on the last recording, Where's Your Cup) and newcomer Toby Williams on drums. Ross and Cedras are superb musicians as is Threadgill (although not in a conventional way), who on this night was playing alto and flute. Yoshi's was a litte more than half full, which I thought was a pretty good audience for Threadgill on a Wednesday night. He has a very loyal following and this seemed to be a knowledgeable and enthusiastic audience. The group played 2 excellent 50 minute sets. Between sets, I was fortunate to talk to Brandon Ross for about 10 minutes. I've met him once before and he seems to be a genuinely nice guy. He claims to remember me and vividly remembered some of the performances I had previously seen, including one with Very Very Circus in a small club/Italian Restaurant in Old Montreal in 1991. He described the club as "like playing in someone's living room."
There is no easy way to describe a Threadgill concert- his music is singularly unique in the world of contemporary music. The experience is perhaps best conveyed by a set of images and impressions. His music is full of mystery, intrigue, a sense of drama, unresolved tension and flavored with elements of music from all over the world. There are swashes of Eastern European sounds, calypso flavored rhythms, marches, rags, reggae and Latin beats, a range of folk and ethnic forms, carnival music with some classical motifs thrown in from time to time. However, it doesn't at all sound like a fusion of any sort. The music is thoroughly abstracted into something very distinct. There are some elements of jazz in the mix, but this band does not really play jazz in any recognizable sense. The music is almost entirely composed and the musicians are given very specific instructions. For example, Cedras will be playing a lead part on accordion and Takeishi will accompany him by playing a single note at fixed time intervals (say every 5 seconds). Every one seems to have a rather exact role to play in Threadgill's musical matrix. Ross suggested that about 85% of the music is structured and the rest is up to each musician. Four of the musicians were intimately familiar with the concept. Williams, on drums, clearly was not. He sometimes seemed not to be in sync with the rest of the group. At one point, he played a rather (seriously out of context) conventional drum solo leaving his fellow musician's somewhat stunned. For the most part, I enjoyed his work on drums, but I would guess that his boss may not have shared my enthusiasm.
The group played 4 songs in the first set, 3 of which I thought came from his last 2 recordings (the excellent and underrated Makin a Move and Where's Your Cup). The songs are either very spare or incredibly dense. The first two songs were rather spare in which the piece consists of a series of movements played mostly at rather slow tempos and characterized by deliberate constructions. One musician is featured at a time, playing a composed part with the accompanying musicians playing very different parts. The rhythm and time keeping responsibilities are distributed. The music has a kind of layered effect that sometimes sound like a soundtrack to a disturbing movie.
The first song featured some beautiful flute playing by Threadgill. His flute work displays an obvious Dolphy influence to it, characterized by a kind of dark, somber, unsettling sound with a probing searching quality. The last two songs of the set were of the densely structured varieties. Every musician is playing simultaneously. These pieces bear a strong similarity to work by Very Very Circus or even his Sextett. The highlight of the first set was the third tune, 'Like it Feels,' which is perhaps the best tune on Makin' a Move along with 'Official Silence' which was perhaps the highlight of the second set. Both pieces have strangely beautiful and haunting melodies. The second set was a little looser with more uptempo numbers and just a little more improvisation--especially on the second number which had a free jazz like quality to it.
Cedras, a great musician in my humble opinion, is most often at the center of the musical on-goings. His harmonium playing gives the music much of it's exotic flavoring. Ross, playing mostly a strangely-shaped headless guitar (similar to a fretted Stick in it's neck) has a very distinctive style, which is steeped in the avant-garde, folkisms (whatever that is!) and punctuated by heavy rock riffing. Sometimes he plays in explosive brief bursts and sound fragments and at other times will develop a melodic theme. His sound along with Threadgill's has provided something of a signature sound to VVC and his more recent groups. Threadgill featured himself on alto much more that he has in recent memory (as judged by recent recordings and appearances). Aside from Jackie McLean, Threadgill has the most distinctive and immediately recognizable (to the few on the planet who listen to him) sound of any alto player. He has a slightly sourish sound often punctuated by a piercing cry. He explores a lot of sounds and textures, and will sometimes play these long lines at a remarkably slow pace and in a manner that doesn't sound at all ballad-like. If they come around to your neck of the woods, go check them out!
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