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Reviews of Recent Recordings


Henry Threadgill
Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus
Pi Recordings P175

Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: AGG
Dirt … And More Dirt
Pi Recordings P173

Composer-wind player Henry Threadgill once led a band called Make a Move. The phrase should be the motto on his family crest. Few composer-improvisers have moved as often and for as long as he has. He moves further ahead with the developments heard on his Pulitzer Prize-winning In for a Penny, In for a Pound and the astonishing debut of his new ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, on his two latest CDs on Pi Recordings.

Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus, adds a third piano to the original Double Up configuration; this time the keyboardists are David Bryant, Luis Perdomo, and David Virelles. Threadgill has always known how to make a small band sound big, but the pianos have really given his music an orchestral impact and somehow made it gentler as well, rounding off the sharper edges of his composing. Here he exempts them from the strict intervallic approach the rest of the band follows, giving them a longer leash when they solo. This result is rhapsodic, sensual, and full of surprises. The album’s 23-minute opening track, “Game is Up,” adds another masterpiece to Threadgill’s string of memorable compositions. He assembles the group like puzzle pieces, with interlocking instruments appearing in constantly changing groupings. The entrances and exits are unexpected, the sequence of events unpredictable, and the rhythmic undercurrents flow in their own direction as melodies come and go. The pianos are an inescapable presence in the music, cresting over the ensemble and falling back, feeding the off-center beats, thickening the ensemble, then dropping out entirely. The three shorter tracks are varied in shape and feeling and each cryptic is its own way, but the longer piece is inspired. You can talk about Threadgill’s compositional technique all you want, but how he crafts all the events in one of his pieces into something orderly and complete is a mystery – and the mystery keeps you coming back in the hope of figuring it out.

Threadgill’s large ensemble recording, Dirt ... And More Dirt has the same kind of solid, geologic presence as the artworks that inspired the music – Walter de Maria’s Earth Room installation at the Dia Art Formation and the sculpture of Stephen De Staebler. The combined personnel of Zooid and Double Up comprises most of the band, but then Threadgill doubles up trombones and trumpets, and throws in a bassist to join them. Big bands have a long history in jazz, but Threadgill is more interested in raising questions about large ensemble writing than following inherited forms. Each composition has several parts, and each one seems to pose a different way of marshalling the group. The writing and improvising sound of a single piece on “Part IV” of Dirt. “Part V” features call and response passages between instrumental groupings, not necessarily brass section and reed section, but individualized collections of instruments. The writing on “Part III” occurs like layers separating soloists. And many parts are simply unique forms that defy classification. The rhythmic foundations are as slippery and elusive as ever, and Threadgill the colorist has a field day with the orchestrations. There are many outstanding soloists including trombonist Jacob Garchik, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, tuba player Jose Davila, and the pianists David Bryant and David Virelles, among others, and each one adds another timbre or feel to the proceedings. But Threadgill’s composing conveys a sense of order beneath the kaleidoscopic, continuously evolving surface, as if each composition has its own ecology and each component in it is in balance with the other.
–Ed Hazell


Dan Weiss
Pi Recordings PI74

Dan Weiss’ Starebaby brings together some of today’s most accomplished players to perform music that combines the spontaneity of jazz with the power of heavy metal and new electronic music. An eclectic and in-demand drummer, Weiss is regularly called upon by a variety of artists, including Rudresh Mahanthappa, Chris Potter, and Jen Shyu. As with his two previous releases – Fourteen, and Sixteen: Drummers SuiteStarebaby is an original work largely without precedent, reflecting Weiss’ singular artistry.

Like his prior output, this album reflects Weiss’ catholic taste, where doom metal, electro-acoustic music, Indian beat cycles, and other disparate influences are combined into an unclassifiable hybrid. Weiss cites myriad influences for this effort: metal bands such as Black Sabbath and Meshuggah; electro-acoustic composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luc Ferrari; and jazz ranging from Sidney Bechet to Henry Threadgill. The project is also heavily inspired by the third season of the television show Twin Peaks, whose ominous surrealism helps shape the effort’s overall ambiance. The album’s expansive soundscape ebbs and flows between introspection and aggression, ranging from serene euphony to roiling dissonance.

All the musicians – Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell on keyboards, piano, and electronics; Ben Monder on guitar; Trevor Dunn on bass, and Weiss – share a love of heavy metal. Yet they’re best known as masterful jazz improvisers, so it’s somewhat surprising to hear them in this setting, although Weiss played with the doom metal band Bloody Panda and Dunn was a member of the experimental rock bands Mr. Bungle and Fantômas. Unsurprisingly, Weiss’ thunderous downbeats and Dunn’s subterranean bass serve as the band’s rock-solid foundation. Mitchell and Taborn are revered for their electronic experimentation and here they deliver an endless assortment of swirling textures and iridescent tonal colors. In his own work, Monder typically favors ethereal abstraction, so it’s a bit unusual to hear him shredding his fretboard in this context. Together, these musos perform with utter conviction, melding precision and power with unfettered improvisation.

Weiss spent considerable time in post-production to infuse this recording with a sound closer to rock than his previous jazz-related efforts. Weiss himself largely eschews percussive pyrotechnics, allowing the music to follow its own idiosyncratic logic, which is dark but not inexorable. “Badalamenti” weaves rangy synth lines into contrapuntal motifs, while Monder unleashes atmospheric peals of sustained distortion. By comparison, the other Twin Peaks-inspired number, “Episode 8,” is a veritable tour-de-force of rapid rhythm changes and contradictory moods, drawing stylistic parallels to the fusion-inspired progressive rock of the early seventies. Drawing on more current trends, the droning dirge section of “The Memory of My Memory” is an authentic interpretation of doom metal, while Monder’s scorching leads on “Cry Box” are equally metallic. Considering its genre-defying experimentation, in the words of the immortal Duke Ellington, Starebaby is most definitely “beyond category.”
–Troy Collins

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