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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.

Butch Morris, on the other hand, wove a spell on the crowd with his provocative brand of “conduction” that provided the dynamic highlights of this evening in Harlem. Leading a flexible 21-piece orchestra that included string, reeds and brass sections along with Warren Smith on vibes, Mia Theodorakis on harp and Liberty Ellman on guitar, Morris pulled spontaneous compositions out of the air, as if by magic. Watching him work that baton as he sculpted sound with a series of codified hand movements put me in mind of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Disney’s Fantasia, where Mickey Mouse stands atop a mountain peak and conducts the heavens, choreographing the stars and planets in their dance across the night sky. Morris’ system of bringing context to improvisation remains a mystery to me, but the results of his “Conduction N. 119” were often exhilarating and breathtakingly beautiful as the flow shifted seamlessly from combustible, jarring passages to luxuriant, dreamy sections that culminated in neatly tucked, pithy little endings. The overall effect was that of a fully realized piece of music that had been brilliantly, meticulously crafted well in advance and slavishly rehearsed by the entire ensemble before presentation. That’s part of Morris’ magic. His keen intuition and boundless imagination ultimately leads him to the music, and the musicians in his charge trust him enough to follow along, tapping their own personal reservoirs of creativity in the process. It’s a wondrous, confounding balancing act between structure and improvisation. And rather than trying to define it or categorize it, the listener is well advised to just sit back and take it in without prejudice. To quote Morris, “It is what it is.”

Originally Published