Recent Pulitzer winner Henry Threadgill only makes important records. In the jazz avant-garde, he is both revered elder statesman and active agent provocateur. Old Locks and Irregular Verbs is momentous in at least three aspects. Threadgill, a major multireed instrumentalist, does not play on it. Double Up is his first new group in 15 years. And it is his first band to feature piano.
Because he is Henry Threadgill, he went directly from 50 years of no pianos to an ensemble with two. His bands often include little-known players, but for his first pianists he chose two youthful masters, Jason Moran and David Virelles. The rest of the septet is Roman Filiu and Curtis MacDonald on alto saxophones, Jose Davila on tuba, Christopher Hoffman on cello and Craig Weinrib on drums.
The album is a four-part suite in tribute to “Conduction” innovator and cornet player Butch Morris, Threadgill’s comrade-in-arms of 40 years, who died in 2013. It is a revelation to hear pianos in a Threadgill ensemble, with all the sweeping sonorities and harmonic densities that Moran and Virelles can jointly generate. The suite has a special subject and unique instrumentation, but it is still classic Threadgill music, which means you must learn how to listen to it.
Instead of head melodies or chord progressions, there are organizing principles like modular/mathematical infrastructure and what Threadgill has called a “serial intervallic language.” Arcane counterpoint is pervasive. The ensemble rarely settles. There are so many separate things going on that it can feel like a three-ring circus. (Or a seven-ring circus; Threadgill once had a band called Very Very Circus.) Learning to listen requires you to resist the temptation to seek out the comfort zone of “solos,” and instead hear how arrays of diverse elements aggregate as new concepts of form. The first three movements of the suite are largely composed and carefully arranged. But they feel born in the moment. “I want my musicians to play spontaneous ideas,” Threadgill has said. “The only way to get them to do that is to get past the usual cues.”
The absence of “usual cues” allows for untethered, striking individual forays-for lack of a better word, call them solos-like Davila’s dark, extended tuba enigma on Part One, and Weinrib’s quietly expanding drum meditation on Part Two. Most significant, Moran and Virelles respond to a new creative situation with some of the most daring, inspired work of their careers. They pour forth fresh ideas, not in a “piano duo,” but in a seething piano choir.
The risk of Threadgill’s procedures is that they can come off as cold, esoteric intellectual games. But his memorial to Morris, his departed friend, confronts deep personal emotion. In the suite’s final movement, Double Up becomes a funeral band. The pianists open Part Four slowly, as if reluctant to intrude on silence, each searching for correlatives to sadness. Their dirge flows and veers because the sadness is not simple. Darkness descends when the other instruments join in a blend of mourning, so heavy it barely moves. But in this elegy, in this profound chorale, the ensemble, at first almost imperceptibly, begins to ascend and sing, and the suite ends in a crescendo of release and affirmation.