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Henry Threadgill & Zooid
This Brings Us To, Volume 1
Pi Recordings P131

Liberty Ellman + Henry Threadgill

Henry Threadgill has a long track record of reinventing his music with each new band he forms. But for the past nine years, he’s devoted his time to reinventing one band – Zooid. The original Zooid, featuring tuba, oud, guitar, cello, and drums, made its debut Up Popped the Two Lips, in 2001. Their remarkable new album, This Brings Us To, Volume 1 is different in instrumentation. For the latest edition, Threadgill has retained guitarist Liberty Ellman and tuba player Jose Davila from the first edition, drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee from later editions, dropped the cello, and added electric bassist Stomu Takeishi, a veteran of several previous Threadgill ensembles, including Make a Move. And this edition reflects the further refinements of Threadgill’s “serial intervallic” approach to composition. This implies that Threadgill has been searching for something quite specific with this group, and with this album, it appears he’s found it.

Threadgill’s system not only provides the language in which he composes, it also creates unique structures for improvisers to use. To simplify it, a series of three-note chords undergirds the pieces and the intervals within the chords must be used as a basis for accompanying and soloing. Musicians have flexibility in their choice of the sequence in which they employ the specified intervals, but Threadgill’s rules also exclude some note choices. Soloists are a bit freer to move away from the stipulated intervals, but they still must use them to some extent in order to remain consonant with the rest of the band and the composition. Even if you don’t know the particulars of the system, you can sense that there is a guiding order. By now, the musicians in the band are comfortable enough with the music’s language so they can fluently express themselves; despite its rigor, the music does not feel constrained at all.

The system is an elegant negotiation of structure and flexibility, and offers wide latitude; forms rarely repeat from one composition to the next. It also ensures that the music has the built-in forward momentum of traditional changes, without reliance on traditional harmony and without the cyclical structure of song form. The music slinks and rolls ahead in a cool, airy, web-like way. It stretches incrementally, but different parts move at different rates and at slightly different tangents. The tension, which never resolves in any conventional sense, is exquisite.

Tension and enigma are Threadgill’s stock in trade. He’s a master at creating mysterious undercurrents. Think of the bass, cello, and drums in the sextet, the two tubas and two guitars in Very, Very Circus, or the four basses on X-75. Most composers like a solid foundation, Threadgill specializes in the shifting and treacherous, the uncertain and mutable. In a Threadgill composition, different forces seem to be pulling instruments in and out of synch. It gives his music an anxious quality and a real sense of mystery. The names of his compositions only heighten the music’s ambiguity. They are mysteries that are all but unsolvable. They sometimes hint at meaning – for instance “After Some Time,” on the current album – but generally remain as impenetrable as a surrealist poem. What are we to make of cryptic monikers such as “Mirror Mirror the Verb” (on the new CD), “Try Some Ammonia” (from Too Much Sugar for a Dime), or “Jenkins Boys Again, Wish Somebody Die, It’s Hot” (from Carry the Day)?

The new album has it’s own ambiguities. It’s often difficult to tell improvisation from composition. This is not entirely new to Threadgill, of course. AACM peers such as Anthony Braxton or Wadada Leo Smith like to disguise the distinctions as well. But it throws up yet another set of unanswered or unanswerable questions. Are “Mirror Mirror the Verb” and “While Wednesday Off the Wall” combinations of improvisation and composition or through composed? What’s the balance? You can’t tell as you listen and Threadgill offers no help. As mysteries pile up, the choice becomes to walk away in frustration or embrace them. Perhaps the questions and not the answers are the point, and the sensual enjoyment of the music and not a complete understanding of its process is the best way to grasp the essence of the music completely.

For this is an uncommonly beautiful album, as cryptic, even as unnerving, as it is. It’s a feast for the ears. The rhythms are funky, swinging, pulsing, and the melodies are bracingly sharp tongued and tart. Threadgill has one of the keenest ears for color of any modern composer. (He’s like Stockhausen in that respect. Also like Stockhausen, he rarely, with the exception of Air in the 1970s, composes for conventional ensembles.) Zooid’s instrumentation gives him a broad pallet to work with. On “To Undertake My Corners Open,” he distributes a theme among all the instruments, a method that creates a prismatic effect.

As an instrumentalist, Threadgill has one of the most precise sounds in jazz. He speaks volumes with a single note and controls the timbre of his flutes and alto saxophone with virtuoso subtlety. When Threadgill solos on “Chairmaster” and “Sap,” he casts broad melodic arcs over the rest of the band, with irregular phrases that leave spaces for one or more of the group to fill in. Sometimes what happens between the notes is just as important as what Threadgill is playing. With the instruments all moving along their own trajectories, it’s impossible to predict who will crop up, a pointed three note phrase from Ellman or Takeishi, a smear of sound from the tuba, or a short burst of percussion from Kavee. The contrasts are especially stark when Threadgill plays alto, pitting his scalding jeremiads against the cool burble of the guitar, tuba, and electric bass.

Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Threadgill’s music makes hungry where most it satisfies. At less than forty minutes in length, This Brings Us To, Volume 1 may be among Threadgill’s most satisfying albums, but it leaves the listener hungry for much more. Volume 2 is promised for 2010.
–Ed Hazell

ECM Records

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