Everybodys Mouth's a Book
Up Popped the Two Lips
The remarkable composer, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill neither records nor tours nearly as much as needed. He is among the increasingly few artists on the jazz front whose music has never become detached or dreary, and whose outlook is always toward the future rather than mired in the past.
Threadgill's compositions are superbly crafted and written to provide maximum ensemble and solo possibilities. His work fully reflects his breadth of experiences and influences. Threadgill truly embraces world music in its totality, and his pieces range from tightly structured to completely free. He's also a superior player on flute and a variety of saxophones.
His first albums in six years showcase both his long-running Make a Move and the new Zooid, a unit Threadgill convened to handle an engagement when his regular band was unavailable. Zooid's unconventional instrumentation combines accordion/harmonium, drums, oud, cello, tuba and acoustic guitar, while Make a Move maintains a vibes/marimba, electric/acoustic guitar, electric/acoustic bass and drums lineup. In both situations, Threadgill consistently bends and stretches stylistic definitions, expanding the rewards for diligent listeners in the process. Taken together, the two discs compile 15 Threadgill selections. There really aren't many similarities between tunes on either release, and Threadgill uniformly avoids cliches and gimmicks.
Everybodys Mouth's a Book features several multilayered tunes like "Platinum Inside Straight," "What to Do, What To Do" and "Burnt Til Recognition," where Threadgill and the band dart in and out of unison and solo segments, with musicians constantly making adjustments to shifting pace, mood and theme. Threadgill's alto statements are fiery and elastic, his flute soothing and suggestive. Guitarist Brandon Ross can offer flickering bursts on electric or sentimental, delightful phrases on acoustic. Bassist Stomu Takeishi and vibist/marimbist Bryan Carrott rotates between aggressive support, extensive solos and a tasteful combination of both, while drummer Dafnis Prieto navigates the tightest line. Threadgill never constructs basic or predictable rhythmic patterns. Prieto's able to provide slight, heavy or steady percussive support, and he doesn't become rambled by off-kilter movements from any other member. What you won't hear on any of the disc's eight songs is a feeble melody or pat arrangement. Threadgill's tunes are electrifying, tricky and delightful, especially "Don't Turn Around," which begins as a dance piece before it evolves into a lush flute, guitar and drums workout.
Up Popped the Two Lips is a more challenging date, mainly due to the wealth of striking sounds. Jose Davila's rumbling tuba, Dana Leong's elongated, whirling plucked-and-bowed cello and Tarik Benbrahim's dynamic oud are skillfully utilized by Threadgill on such pieces as "Tickled Pink," "Dark Black," "Calm Down" and "Do the Needful." Sometimes Threadgill incorporates the full unit in a rigorous, stirring arrangement. Other times he'll highlight particular players and emphasize intriguing patterns: oud/tuba/cello contrasted with alto; drums/cello dueling against oud/guitar/tuba. Even when Threadgill does assemble the complete band he may give the cello the bottom of the arrangement and the tuba the top, instead of the expected.
Neither album follows a standard script. Rather than think solely in terms of call/response or head/solos/head, Threadgill emphasizes blends, waves and moods. The manner in which Threadgill juggles players, mixing and matching them to surprise and confound the listener, is what makes these discs so compelling. Ultimately, Threadgill's songs, as performed by both these bands, offer audiences all the virtues of great jazz: individuality, surprise, cohesion and spirit, performed in a highly distinctive, contemporary and fresh manner.