This is a difficult review to write, knowing that the folks who follow Henry Threadgill are likely already aware of (or in possession of) this new release — his first in eight very long years. On the other hand, this is an easy review to write, since it is pretty painless to recommend exceptional music. So let it serve as a friendly reminder for fans and an introduction of sorts for the uninitiated.
Perhaps the most illuminating way to attempt discussing Henry Threadgill’s music is to begin by discussing the man himself. Biographically speaking, Threadgill is one of the most respected, if recalcitrant members of the post-‘70s avant-garde. Of course, his roots stretch back a bit further, as he first made a name through his association with AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) in the ‘60s. By the way, referring to him as recalcitrant is intended as the highest form of praise. Though he spent a minute signed to a major label (his mid-‘90s work for Columbia Records produced some quiet masterpieces which, being both masterpieces and jazz albums, sold enough copies to ensure that the association was brief). Threadgill, suffice it to say, has always followed his own path, making no apologies for the wonderfully challenging music he makes. Upon winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003, his extended hiatus from recording was starting to seem ominous, which makes the release of This Brings Us To, Volume 1 cause for considerable joy.
Virtually any Threadgill recording is like the indiscreet hole in the wall joint that happens to serve the best food in town. No bells or whistles, no valet parking or wait lists, but it manages to stay in business by retaining the loyal clients it attracts. Take the name of his working band, Zooid. For the benefit of folks who had difficulty with math class (like myself), the name does not signify the number of musicians (Octet…Nonet…Zooid?). A zooid, to quote the press materials, “is a cell that is able to move independently of the larger organism to which it belongs.” To be certain, there are examples of pretense without sense (we can all think of examples without naming names), and then there is intelligence so genuine and unrestrained it is slightly intimidating but ultimately exhilarating. Just listing the titles of select Threadgill compositions illustrates his keen and refreshingly unorthodox mind: “Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket”, “First Church of This”, “I Love You With an Asterisk”, “Dirty in the Right Places”, “Go to Far”. One always gets an adequate sense of Threadgill’s perception of the world, and the amount of thought and attention that has occurred, before a single note is played.
And that is where the listener comes in. This Brings Us To, Volume 1 is, once again, Threadgill’s first release since 2001, and a most worthy companion piece to the excellent Up Popped the Two Lips. A few words about the Zooid. A handful of people in the world who are inspired, or forced by their parents, to play tuba actually grow up to become badass musicians: one of them, Jose Davila — who also plays trombone — is in this band. The rest of the quintet is comprised of Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums), Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Liberty Ellman (acoustic guitar). Then there is Threadgill himself, who alternates between alto sax and flute.
The music, as usual, has overtones of Eastern influence but is firmly rooted in Western (jazz) tradition. As always, it obliges the listener to slow down, concentrate, and receive. The opening track (and enigmatically titled) “White Wednesday Off the Wall” is a tone poem of subtle expression: the flute whisks in between the strings being plucked and pulled, while the tuba crouches like a crocodile, just beneath the surface. It is, like much of Threadgill’s calmer pieces, beautiful but ever so slightly foreboding. It also conveys a certain prehistoric vibe that recalls the first installment of Sun Ra’s Heliocentric Worlds series.
The pace quickens with “To Undertake My Corners Open”, showcasing Kavee while Ellman makes cerebral, always tasteful contributions throughout. “Chairmaster” opens up ample space for Davila, who takes an extended solo before dueling with Threadgill’s serpentine flute runs. “After Some Time” is an insanely syncopated — and appropriately named — workout for Threadgill on alto saxophone, with Kavee gamely keeping pace at every turn. The bandleader remains on alto for “Sap”, another frenetic romp that encourages Ellman to stretch out, working into a hurry-up-to-slow-down solo that is reminiscent of Marc Ribot. Finally, “Mirror Mirror the Verb” is a quirky exclamation point on the proceedings, and sounds more than a little like Eric Dolphy woodshedding with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
So, like I said, this is not music for everyone, but it is music for anyone. Even for jazz hounds, Henry Threadgill is somewhat of an acquired taste; not so much because his music is impenetrable or off-putting, but because it is a foreign film that does not provide subtitles. You may not always be able to follow it, but you always know what is going on. Hopefully it goes without saying that I mean that in a good way.