PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Threadbare Elevate Rock and Jazz on the Complex 'Silver Dollar'

Atonal free jazz trio Threadbare use unique instrumentation and a love of multiple musical styles on their fascinating new album, Silver Dollar.

Silver Dollar

No Business

29 May 2020

Frank Zappa once famously declared, "Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny." That line was uttered onstage for the sake of a good laugh, but there is some twisted truth behind it. To keep the genre alive and well – which it most certainly is – artists need to think outside the box and create music that is unusual, groundbreaking, and pungent. Whether it's the jagged guitar lines of Mary Halvorson or Brad Mehldau's meditative piano retooling of rock standards, nothing is off-limits. That's excellent news for jazz fans; the genre has often suffered from a perceived ossification at the hands of harsh traditionalists. Then there are artists like Jason Stein.

Stein, a Chicago-based bass clarinetist with a stellar reputation and several releases on forward-thinking labels like Northern Spy and Clean Feed, has teamed up with two younger musicians and formed Threadbare. It's a project that sounds like a trio of avant-garde jazz fans with a jones for atonal rock. Or perhaps three rock fans who stumbled upon free jazz and fell hopelessly in love with it. Guitarist Ben Cruz and drummer Emerson Hunton, both Oberlin College graduates and recent Chicago transplants, have joined Stein for this vibrant, adventurous musical project. Besides their evident jazz roots, they also play in an indie rock band called Moontype. Clearly, these three artists are capable of creating a unique sound.

On Silver Dollar, Stein, Cruz and Hunton straddle a fine line between freewheeling improvisation and the thump of guitar-based rock. While the fractured start/stop vibe of opening track "And When Circumstances Arise" gives way to some wailing solos from Stein (going off the rails in a way that would make John Coltrane, Albert Ayler or John Zorn nod approvingly), it's impossible to ignore the contributions from Cruz and Hunton. They create an expert rhythm section perfectly attuned to Stein's flights of fancy (and also split the album's songwriting duties).

"Threadbare 02" is where Cruz's soloing comes into its own. Veering between spiky leads and sophisticated noodling, his playing on the track is generous and wide open without being showy, as Stein and Hunton offer encouraging accompaniment. On "70 Degrees and Counting Down", the indie rock influences begin to show, as Cruz lays down fuzzy grunge chords that sound like they were lifted from a 1992 Seattle gig. But these kinds of influences never seem phoned in or added as a gimmick – rather, they complement the free jazz aesthetic and add a layer that may seem incongruous on the surface but is a perfect – if odd – pairing.

For listeners who may be more comfortable with somewhat traditional jazz influences, "Funny Thing Is" generally sets the more overt rock influences aside. A lightning-fast bebop atmosphere dominates the track (although Cruz can't resist some inspired lead guitar squalls). The relatively unusual absence of a bass player never seems to create problems on Silver Dollar. On this track, which is far more jazz than rock, the trio are perfectly adept at taking their specific instrumentation to thrilling heights. But for those who ache for the trio to lean into their rock side, the title track is a particularly potent slab of noisy, distorted stoner rock, as Cruz and Stein's sustained, low-end chords drag the song into doom-metal territory, even when Stein's inspired solo punctures the song's center.

The album's closing track, "Untitled", takes most of the album's influences and packs it into a glorious, eight-minute finale. Beginning with delicate, almost tentative instrumental swells, the band soon picks up the pace, slashing away as Cruz lays down another thrilling solo, and the trio eventually execute a dramatic, elegant close. Silver Dollar makes an excellent case for the confluence of genres. Rock fans will eat up the guitar-based intensity, and free jazz lovers will be in awe of the trio's expert way around a good improvisational setup. Music doesn't have to be confined to specific genres. Threadbare is living proof of that.

Related Articles Around the Web

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.