Taylor Ho Bynum

*Photo by Peter Gannushkin

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A to Zooid

A few months ago, I had the chance to hear Henry Threadgill’s Zooid at the Jazz Gallery in New York, on a cold November night in front of a handful of dedicated listeners. It was probably the best live music I caught all year. The band (Threadgill on alto and flute, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, Jose Davila on tuba, and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums) had just returned from a European tour, and they were hitting on all cylinders. Last night, I got a chance to hear the band again (with cellist Chris Hoffman in place of Takeishi), this time in a packed concert hall at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and the music was similarly extraordinary.

According to Wesleyan’s press release, “a zooid is an organic cell capable of independent movement or one of several cells forming a colony.” A fairly perfect metaphor for the band, where each musician might be engaged in independent, yet wholly connected, activity. Threadgill stuck to flute for the first three compositions, then switched to alto saxophone for the remainder of the set and the encore. His voice on both instruments is inimitable; for me, his alto sound in particular is one of the most bracing joys of contemporary music. He’s always been a master at balancing sound and silence in his improvisations, picking his spots, jabbing in and out of the music like a dancing Muhammad Ali. (I’m showing my instrumental bias, but Threadgill reminds me of some of my favorite trumpet players, like Wadada Leo Smith and Bill Dixon: the way they can all shatter musical expectations with the depth and power of a short phrase or a single note.)

The music bears some superficial resemblance to the Very Very Circus, but it has evolved into a wholly unique entity. (Like all of Threadgill’s projects; the artistic scope from Air to the Sextett to the Very Very Circus alone is stunning. Those are three of my all-time favorite ensembles, but they couldn’t sound more different. That’s not even counting his compositions for clumps of guitars, or cellos, or the four-flute, four-bass and voice band X-75. And one of my great regrets is that I never got to hear the legendary, yet unrecorded, twenty-piece Society Situation Dance Band.) The acoustic instrumentation of Zooid opens up the sonic space, allowing a delicacy and abstraction that comes close to some of Air’s most exploratory moments. But the band still has that remarkable groove that Threadgill has patented over the past few decades: off-kilter, always surprising, joyful and bizarre and funky all at once. (After the concert, learning Threadgill was an old friend and collaborator of Mario Bauza was a revelation that made a lot of things clear.) The harmonic sense is similarly addictive and opaque, consistently unpredictable yet clearly operating within some kind of defined and satisfying internal logic. And the band dynamics were masterful, the music was full of swells and decrescendos, sudden silences and ensemble explosions, that always felt cohesive and organic.

But within the strict compositional structures Threadgill creates, he allows the individual performers to stretch out and take chances, and each musician took advantage and sounded fantastic. Liberty Ellman, Jose Davila, and Elliot Humberto Kavee have all been playing with Threadgill since at least 2001, and their comfort and dedication to Threadgill’s music was in full display. Ellman has blown me away the last couple times I’ve heard him (and I am particularly picky with guitarists, no pun intended). He’s fully absorbed the complex harmonic and rhythmic parameters of Threadgill’s music, spinning long lines with marvelous ease while taking thrilling rhythmic and timbral risks. (At least he makes it sound easy, I imagine Threadgill’s music keeps you sweating.) Davila is a virtuosic tubaist, not only nailing the exhausting role of tracking Threadgill’s ever-moving bass lines but exploring the instrument’s full potential in melodically inventive improvisations. He has a rich, full brass sound (conical bore represent!) that can be equally punchy or buttery. Kavee is ascending to Steve McCall-Pheeroan akLaff status in the pantheon of Threadgill’s great percussionists; he manages to keep the music simultaneously spacious and propulsive, moving the beat around the kit to keep the colors constantly changing while the energy never slackens. He and Threadgill had a quiet duet of scraped cymbals and breathy attacks that was like a zen miniature garden in the midst of a bustling metropolis. Chris Hoffman rose to the challenge of being the relative newcomer in this tight-knit ensemble. Acting as sonic bridge between the tuba and the guitar, his plucked cello lines glued the ensemble, while taking some beautiful arco solos that translated Threadgill’s saxophone phrasing into a string language.

Anthony Braxton gave a pre-concert talk that outlined Threadgill’s career and made clear his importance to “trans-idiomatic” creativity, while also making clear the affection Anthony has towards his friend and colleague of fifty years. (Amazingly, Braxton and Threadgill shared the same childhood saxophone teacher from when they were twelve years old, a man named Jack Gell. Braxton has told me a great story of going in to lessons, and Gell berating him “You’re not practicing enough! You don’t care about the music! You’ll never be a real musician like Henry!”, driving Anthony to spend hours more in the practice room. But then years later, talking to Henry, he found out Gell was telling Henry the same thing, playing the two boys off of each other: “You’ll never be a real musician like Anthony!” However harsh the pedagogy, it certainly seemed to work…Jack Gell, may he rest in peace, deserves some kind of medal.) As Braxton said, Threadgill’s music incorporates sounds from all over the world, from Africa to Europe, Latin America to the Middle East, yet never sounds “fusion-y” or forced. It always sounds like Threadgill.

I must give a shout-out to the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan. Artists like Henry Threadgill should have the opportunity to present their work in the United States in environments that are respectful and well-funded, but it is all too rare. (Threadgill told me he hadn’t played in Connecticut since the 1980s.) Particularly in a country with such a pathetic level of federal arts money, universities have a real opportunity and responsibility to nurture the most creative forms of artistic expression, but too often they settle for safe, middle-of-the-road fare. But on this night, Wesleyan’s CFA brought in an uncompromising master of contemporary music, and were rewarded with a magical concert, a full house, and a standing ovation. As the CFA director Pamela Tatge said in her introductory remarks, “Braxton came on the concert committee for the first time last year, and challenged us to bring in artists with true radiance. Well, here we are tonight.” I hope it can happen many more nights in the future, and serve as an example to other such institutions.

After the concert, I got to go out for some food and drinks with Threadgill, Braxton, and a handful of other friends and musicians. That experience could be a book in and of itself. Threadgill laid out the intervallic logic he uses to build his compositions, and described how the band improvises not only with harmony, melody, and rhythm, but with form, as the modular phrases are rearranged, contracted, or expanded. He also mentioned how they might improvise with attack, playing with timbre or vibrato; articulation as an improvised ensemble decision. It was fascinating that Threadgill described his modular harmonic units as the DNA of his music, an analogy I’ve so often heard Braxton use in regards to his language music. They also share a willingness to improvise with all facets of musical organization; in totally different ways, they both give exceptional freedom to their musicians while maintaining musical universes of such clearly defined rules. It’s striking, they’ve know each other for fifty years, yet they’ve constructed such individualistic models for their music, yet those models share certain innate principles of identity, creativity, and ridiculous amounts of brilliance. And listening to old AACM stories is always a pleasure and an education; how the contentiousness of the participants fueled all of their aesthetic openness, how they challenged each other’s conceptions and all emerged stronger (”a power stronger than itself,” indeed!). And both Threadgill and Braxton politely turned down Sun Ra’s invitation to join the Arkestra at different times. (”We all loved Sun Ra, but he wanted followers. That wasn’t for us.”) Hearing Threadgill and Pheeroan akLaff, also at the table, talk about the early days of the Sextett was also quite a treat, amazing to learn that almost all the drum parts for both percussionists in that ensemble were fully notated.

One of those nights that reminds me I live a truly blessed life: getting to hang out as some of my greatest musical heroes sit around, exchange ideas and talk about the good old days. Like sitting on a porch listening to Ellington and Ives discuss the finer points of orchestration, except if Duke and Charlie were childhood buddies. Man, I’ve got to go do some practicing and composing now…I’m both profoundly inspired, and wholly intimidated by how high these guys have set the bar. May their friendship and music continue another half century.

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