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2001 Vitoria-Gasteiz and San Sebastian Jazz Festivals

Henry Threadgill
Lou Grassi

The most adventurous double bill of the season was split between two visionaries who have devoted their careers to bringing structure to the art of improvisation, each in highly personalized ways. The last time they shared such a billing in New York–under the big tent at the Knitting Factory-sponsored Texaco Jazz Festival of 1998–it was Threadgill who stole the show with a rousing, rump-shaking set by his Make a Move band. This time out Threadgill played it decidedly more cerebral with far less thrilling results.

Threadgill’s “On Walcott” was essentially a multimedia theater piece in which he set the poetry of Derek Walcott to music. Unfortunately, his somber score for an octet that included two oud players and a tuba player along with Ted Daniel on trumpet, Mark Dresser on bass, Leroy Jenkins on violin, Dafnis Prieto on drums and Threadgill himself on alto sax and flute seemed to take a backseat in the overall production. Between the weightiness of Walcott’s words (recited in too-soft tones and sung by Senti Toy), the whirling onstage choreography (by dancers Judith Sanchez-Ruiz and Astrud Angarita) and the rotating series of stark, super-sized black and white images (by photographer Jules Allen) projected on a back wall, the music served to underscore and augment rather than engage on its own terms. At the Texaco Jazz Festival, Threadgill was unencumbered by the pretension of high art and proceeded to make a joyful noise that rocked the house and had patrons dancing in the aisles. “On Walcott” could have used some of the earthiness and elation that accompanied that spirited gig.

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