Lots of people can buck tradition, but avant-garde savior Henry Threadgill came up with a whole new system.
"It’s like someone brings you a plate and fills it up with food, and do you have to eat it all? I don’t think so...albums, they were just about right, for the American listening public," Henry Threadgill said about a year ago. He and his band Zooid had just completed their first album for Pi recordings in eight years, This Brings Us To, Volume I, and it was a tease. Falling just under the 40-minute mark and remarkably understated, it didn't feel like the grand-slam comeback that fans of composed avant-garde jazz were rooting for. At least, that’s not what you got from the first, second, or third listen. No, this band was up to something very different; Threadgill and his Zooid quintet had spent the better part of a decade embarking on a mission to destroy jazz clichés.
Step one: forget the normal rules of composition and improvisation. Threadgill, a flute and saxophone virtuoso, has constructed an interval-based approach to his compositions. This is nothing like the fakebook approach where chords and melody are mapped out together. The members of Zooid -- Threadgill, guitarist Liberty Ellman, bassist Tomu Takeishi, drummer Elliot H. Kavee and Joe Davila, doubling up on trombone and tuba -- are assigned "interval blocks". Step two: become familiar with this new way of improvising. Just because you aren't tied down by old rules doesn't mean you don’t have to listen closely to one another anymore. On the contrary, you probably have to do it more, since you might not be working in a traditional key signature. Step three: make some killer recordings out of it.
Produced by Ellman, both volumes of This Brings Us To came from the same late 2008 recording sessions. Unsurprisingly, the albums sound like fraternal twins. Picking a favorite between the two is a matter of splitting hairs. Both albums are more or less nudged into action, most songs beginning in strangely unassuming ways. Threadgill himself, like last time, allows his understudies to set the scene for two or three minutes before he enters the picture. Kavee's drumming style is light and rapid, slicing up the syncopation like it was as easy as breathing. A majority of the five songs here end in a fashion similar to someone gently closing the door behind them without speaking. Although Threadgill is teaching his band new ways to rethink improvisation, his own style of taking the lead has noticeable ties to his past, from his early Novus days through the Air trio up to his Make a Move ensemble. The choppy, ascending intervals, the reluctant and rapid succession of one note, saying no more than he has to; how could these traits not carry over? He's human.
This is a credit to This Brings Us To, Volume II. This new approach to playing jazz seems mathematical in theory and therefore threatens to sound sterile in practice. It does not. Zooid sounds as fluid and soulful as a late-night jam lubricated by wine and spirits. It doesn't obtusely go over your head or play down to you. It is the sound of many things happening, yet not overloading the ears and brain. It is music, of formulaic origin yet driven by the human touch.
Not everyone can do this. Threadgill was new, interesting and daring at the start of his career...30 years ago. He remains new, interesting, and daring today, and for that he should be considered a national treasure. His lack of activity during the past decade was cause for worry (2005's vinyl-only Pop Start the Tape, Start doesn't seem to count in many online discographies). Speaking for myself, I was afraid we had heard the last of Threadgill. The arrival of last year's This Brings Us To, Volume I was a subdued one, seemingly refusing to carry any zinger tracks. I would not be surprised if it took all of those AACM fans a long time to warm up to it. Yet when you think outside of the terms of Henry Threadgill's career, it was a bombshell of a step that needed to be taken for music. Does trad jazz always have to be sectioned off carefully into blocks? Does free jazz always have to be noisy, formless racket? Are those your only two options? Zooid's two recent releases have paved the way for avant-garde jazz improvisation to go the way of conversation: talking, trading ideas, encouraging each other to reach another level no one has bothered looking for, and giving the listener an entirely brand new sound.
I had a music theory professor who once said "a musician will blacken your eye if you apply the word 'repetition' to what they do." It's an appropriate word to describe "Jumping Jack Flash" and Beethoven's 5th, isn't it? What Henry Threadgill has accomplished has no repetition. If there are patterns, they are thickly wrapped and deeply buried in the delicate sound that is Zooid. Once again, Pi recordings has given us one of the best albums of the year.