Henry Threadgill: Dirt … and More Dirt//Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus (Pi)

Review of two albums by saxophonist using different groups

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Cover of Henry Threadgill album "Dirt...and More Dirt" on Pi

Henry Threadgill 14 Or 15 Kestra: Agg: Dirt … and More Dirt (Pi)
Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up: Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus (Pi)

Henry Threadgill will never be accused of resting on his laurels. The legendary multireedist and composer’s first new work since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2016 is actually a pair of works, both of them large-scale, both sweeping and magnificent, neither featuring the Zooid quintet with which Threadgill won the Pulitzer (for 2015’s In for a Penny, In for a Pound).

That said, all Zooid’s members—guitarist Liberty Ellman, cellist Christopher Hoffman, tubist Jose Davila, drummer Elliott Humberto Kavee—are part of his new 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg big band. Their diptych Dirt … and More Dirt retains the atonal, interval-based language Threadgill developed with Zooid but increases the orchestration and ensemble passages while decreasing the slashing funk rhythms (which really only appear on “Dirt Part III”). This decrease is particularly surprising, considering that the Zooid players are joined by bassist Thomas Morgan, second drummer Craig Weinrib and the two pianos of David Bryant and David Virelles, who also plays harmonium. Add to that two trumpets, two trombones, two alto saxophones and alto flute, plus Threadgill’s alto saxophone and concert and bass flutes, and this sound is its own beast.

It’s often a quieter, more spacious beast. The melodic trumpet solo on “Dirt IV” is given a wide berth by the ensemble, and “Dirt V” ends with a plaintive percussion dialogue, Weinrib’s toms versus Kavee’s bell. The presence of Morgan’s bass means that Davila can be less busy, but his more elaborate lines on “And More Dirt Part I” are also more muted, suggesting that his apparent greater simplicity may be partly a product of the final mix.

“Dirt” forms the bulk of the album, ranging from a clumpy piano duet (“II”) to a row of solos against eerie harmonium (“I”). As the titles suggest, the “And More Dirt” half of the album is appendix-like: four short movements, all but one less than three minutes, miniatures of their counterparts in the first half. The finale, however, contains the album’s most beautiful moment: Threadgill’s here-wobbly, there-wailing alto over Bryant’s hesitant piano, playing a melody similar to “When I Fall in Love.”

Keyboards are an important element of Dirt … and More Dirt, but they’re foundational on Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus, Threadgill’s second recording with the Ensemble Double Up (following 2016’s Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, which, truth be told, was better than In for a Penny). It features no less than three pianos—Luis Perdomo joining Bryant and Virelles, the latter keeping up the harmonium doubling—which make up nearly half of the ensemble’s eight pieces. (Threadgill isn’t one of them; alto saxophonist/flutist Román Filiú and alto player Curtis Robert Macdonald, the additional reeds on Dirt, stand alone here.)

It’s only natural, then, that piano be prominent in the four-movement work. “The Game Is Up,” the opening section—nearly as long as the other three combined—is a clattering but playful piano duet, interspersed with noisy crosstalk between reeds, Davila, Hoffman and lone drummer Weinrib. The two-part “Clear and Distinct From the Other” is more or less a piano concerto, Bryant and Perdomo working out part A over Virelles’ harmonium scrim and all three pianos together on B, while the pianists and harmonium quickly take over the initial tuba-cello duet of the epilogue “Clear and Distinct.” Their prominence, and the other musicians’ care not to step on them, lends Double Up the same spacious feel as its companion album.

Companions they are indeed, their pianistic emphasis uniting them despite their distinct shapes. Double Up is the more digestible of the two; Dirt … and More Dirt includes Threadgill’s own improvisational brilliance. Both are prime specimens of his late-period work. Each, though, is diminished without the other.

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Preview, buy or download Dirt…And More Dirt on Amazon!

Preview, buy or download Double Up Plays Double Up Plus on Amazon!