Henry Threadgill: Be Ever Out

Stunning recent recordings and two weighty box sets help tell the story of Henry Threadgill, an unstoppable American original.

Henry Threadgill can breathe easier now. It’s mid-November, and having just finished a tough three-night series at Roulette in lower Manhattan, he’s settling down to coffee at De Robertis, a pastry shop near his East Village home. The staff knows him well; a female proprietor calls him “sweetheart.” Another server, an older man, welcomes him by putting on This Brings Us To, Volume II, Threadgill’s latest Pi release with Zooid, his working band. Threadgill stops mid-sentence as soon the music starts, makes eye contact with the waiter over his shoulder and shares a laugh. Turning back around, he comments: “They’ve become my fans.” For the next 40 minutes, the sound of Threadgill’s knotty, challenging music fills the café.

And why not? Threadgill, born in 1944, is one of the most intriguing composers of our time, a saxophonist and flutist with a history that stretches back to the early days of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1960s Chicago. Along with the current Zooid title, we now have The Complete Novus & Columbia Records of Henry Threadgill & Air, an eight-CD box set from Mosaic, to put Threadgill’s achievements into perspective. Another comprehensive, remastered seven-disc set from Black Saint (now owned by CAM Jazz) fills out yet more of the picture—although Threadgill is miffed, to put it mildly, that he wasn’t consulted on the Black Saint packaging or release.

Far from slowing down, Threadgill is “on a composing tear,” according to Liberty Ellman, Zooid’s guitarist. The first night at Roulette saw the premiere of “In Frontispiece,” an extended work for Zooid and strings funded by Harvard’s Fromm Music Foundation. Threadgill is also preparing a commission for the American Composers Orchestra titled “No Gates, No White Trenches, Butterfly Effect,” to be performed on March 4, 2011 at Zankel Hall. “I’d never played that much different, demanding music in three nights,” Threadgill says of the Roulette residency. “Even on tour it’s not like that.” Apart from “In Frontispiece,” Threadgill and Zooid devoted a night to the music from the new Pi disc, and another to revisiting “All the Way Light Touch,” a long-form work first heard at Roulette in 2009. (Search the archive at www.roulette.org/rtv.php for full footage of the premiere.)

There’s a lingering oversimplified view of avant-garde jazz as wholly off-the-cuff, by definition unrehearsed. Yet “In Frontispiece” alone required some 17 rehearsals. The culture of Zooid is distinctly labor-intensive, even if the band has achieved a marked fluency and transparency after a decade together. Bringing a string quartet into Zooid’s arcane process added another layer of challenges. “A premiere is never the best we can do,” Threadgill offers. “I’m trying to find a place where I can perform [‘In Frontispiece’] again. But I’d have to rehearse it just as much or more. You know why? Because I wouldn’t play it that way. The way that you heard it, I would never do that again. We did that.”

One of the most instantly identifiable bands working today, Zooid has always traded on a subtle, predominantly acoustic sound. Its lineup has shifted some over the years, but from the start it has featured Ellman on acoustic guitar and Jose Davila on tuba and trombone. Drummer Elliot Kavee did not appear on Up Popped the Two Lips, Zooid’s 2001 Pi debut, but he took over from Dafnis Prieto soon after. Stomu Takeishi, on acoustic bass guitar, was a member of Threadgill’s previous band, Make a Move.

Cellist Christopher Hoffman, though a full-fledged Zooid member, does not appear on either volume of This Brings Us To—the first of which was released to fervent critical acclaim in 2009. On Ellman’s urging, Zooid recorded the discs back-to-back after a three-week tour that the band happened to do as a quintet. The idea was to strike while the iron was hot. Ellman produced both albums and mixed them in his Brooklyn home studio. (A skilled engineer, he’s also done work for Butch Morris, Wadada Leo Smith and others.)

Maintaining a steady lineup is key, because it takes time even for the initiated to grapple with Threadgill’s music. First, the compositions employ a unique and rigorous intervallic language, informally dubbed “The System,” which Threadgill has developed over the last 15 years. Second, Threadgill’s ceaseless reshuffling of structural elements can mean that a given piece becomes a different animal with every performance. “The way I bring it in doesn’t mean a thing,” Threadgill states. “I had to bring it in some kind of way! So once we read it, let’s go further than that. Let’s forget about any order. In jazz the form has been treated as sacred. The form is not sacred with me.”

Band members can expect Threadgill not just to swap the sequence of sections in a piece. He might ask for a series of three bars to be isolated and looped, even played backwards. Seated in the café, Threadgill demonstrates with objects near at hand, moving around the coffee cup, the spoon, the milk container. His point? “Everything that’s on this table,” he says, “it never left the table, did it? So nothing has changed. That’s what Picasso and them were doing, when they would take a thumb and make it come out your knee. … My hand is still my hand.”

As Kavee puts it, “[Henry] composes with his compositions. Whenever you think you’ve got it, he’ll come up with something and you’re right at the precipice again. This is my 10th year with him and there’s still a buzz in the room at rehearsal.”

The System gives Zooid a sound far removed from any major/minor tonality, and it foregrounds a contrapuntal web rather than the sounding of full chords by any one instrument. In that sense, Threadgill departs from jazz norms codified by Don Redman and other big-band arrangers as long ago as the 1920s: chord below, melody above, instruments moving together. You could cite New Orleans polyphony as one of Threadgill’s models, though his inspiration reaches further back, and farther away. “It’s African-based, to me,” he says. “Independence of parts.” “Zooid” is in fact a term from biology: a cell structure that moves independently within a living organism.

So how does it work? Ellman’s guitar chart for “Lying Eyes,” the leadoff track from Volume II, is written in two staves. The top shows a melody line with complex syncopation and meters changing as often as every bar. The bottom stave shows a row of three-note chords stacked like an inverted pyramid: for instance, G and D over C-sharp, or A-sharp and B over G-sharp, or D-flat and A-flat over F. Typically, each bar contains four of these chord forms, all related by virtue of intervallic relationships. “There’s a male and there’s a female,” Threadgill explains. “And each one of them produces, let’s say, children. So with this male and female I can have 14, 15, 16 pieces of harmony. … Everything that happens is as a result of those intervals. That creates all the order. So all the voice leading is perfect.” He pauses, a gleam in his eye. “Absolutely perfect.”

Below the families of chords, each bar includes a set of intervals to be used as a guide for improvisation. An interval set might look like this: -2, -2, +4, 5, 6, 6. Or this: 2, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5, -7. And below these sets, still another row of digits indicates the number of beats for each set. Those values can be doubled when the soloist wishes to stretch out in “long meter.” “Just like in traditional four-part counterpoint,” Ellman observes, “in Henry’s system you have certain rules about motion. I use that to inform the melodic shapes in my solos, but it’s more important when you’re providing accompaniment, moving from one chord to the next.” To be clear, Ellman doesn’t mean “comping” in the ordinary sense: “Imagine you have a guitar or piano playing the harmony, all the notes together. Now imagine if each note in the harmony was a different person, and they’re all playing one note out of the chord. That’s what we’re doing. I might be playing a funky single-note guitar line [sings ‘dit-dit-dit-dit’], Jose might just go ‘wahhhh’ on the tuba, but within a few beats we’re all playing that chord.”

Rehearsal is where these elements get picked apart and patiently put together. “When we work on a new piece,” Ellman offers, “we’ll start playing it in sections. You want to hear everyone else’s part so you know where you fit into the framework. Then, once we’ve got our parts down, we’ll spend time on the harmony, playing the numbers as an accompaniment section without the soloing. Like playing the changes.”

The drums are another matter. According to Kavee, “The drum part is in a different time signature than the rest of the band, almost always.” And it’s not about adding difficulty for its own sake, as Threadgill explains. “If five or six of us are playing in one time,” he says, “I don’t need the drums to play in the same time. That doesn’t make any sense at all to me.”

Kavee elaborates: “You have these downbeats hitting at different places, and the interval sets change at different rates than my bars change.” The result is often an asymmetric lilt that anchors the music and lends it accessibility. “Henry writes funky music,” says Ellman, “and he likes to groove. When we rehearse, he’s dancing, and we’re all bobbing our heads. He’s got history back in the day from the military and marching bands and his music is informed by that.”

For the music to flow, however, the band must also break down the rhythmic elements and practice looping them in smaller units. “These loops are just ridiculously cool,” Ellman says. Half-jokingly, he voices interest in a remix project that would allow people “to hear the music the way we hear it when we’re rehearsing.”

Learning to operate in Threadgill’s demanding environment while sounding like oneself—this is the journey that his associates must undertake. “In the beginning it was hard,” recalls Takeishi. “With the first piece it took us maybe six months to make music with it. Henry’s always challenging you, and you’re not always able to use your strengths. He’s always asking you to do something you’re not that good at [laughs]. But he told me that whenever things get comfortable, it’s time to get out. And that woke me up. Your weakness could be your strength, if you focus on it.”

Alternate notation, serial techniques, experimental form: These have a long history in both the jazz and classical avant-gardes, but Threadgill has put them to distinctly personal use. As much as he respects and studies the classical tradition, he flatly states, “I don’t play European music. I write instrumental music, not orchestral music or chamber music. I don’t use those forms. I don’t imitate anything, and I don’t use any of those processes. I have another way of advancing my information.”

The rest of this article appears in the March 2011 issue of JazzTimes.

Originally published in March 2011

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