Henry Threadgill is one of America’s senior jazz and new music originators. He’s still originating, and Zooid has been his main vehicle since the turn of the century. In for a Penny, in for a Pound (Pi Recordings) is just the latest expression of the group’s evolution. Since the last, Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp (2012, Pi Recordings), Threadgill has made rare appearances as a sideman on notable recordings by Wadada Leo Smith (The Great Lakes Suite (TUM)) and Jack De Johnette (Made in Chicago (ECM)), both of whom are his close contemporaries; but there’s nothing like his own music, which he forges in association with younger blood.
There are no overt references in Zooid’s music to any jazz convention, be it bebop, modal or fire music; not even overtly to anything else out of AACM, the Chicago institution that Threadgill co-founded in the 60s to nurture new music. Such echoes of precursors such as John Philip Sousa, say, or Django Reinhardt that may flit through it are recast in a spirit of vigorous affirmation and creative renewal.
Consider Zooid’s instrumentation. This lineup is the same as on Tomorrow Sunny…, with the exception of absent bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi. And that’s a significant absence, because without Takeishi the only bass presence, besides drums, is Jose Davilla’s tuba, and that in a band typically blessed with emphatic low-end bounce.
In this slimmed-down quintet formation Davilla also plays trombone, Threadgill plays occasional flute and bass flute, as well as alto sax, and Zooid veterans Liberty Ellman (guitar) and Elliot Humbert Kavee (drums) are both present and correct, alongside cellist Christopher Hoffman. With it’s paired strings and brass/percussion bottom, this Zooid loosely maintains the leader’s longstanding predilection for sectionally structured groups.*
This typically judicious instrumentation, and its application to Threadgill’s unique conception of musical organisation makes him a composer/conductor of real genius. That’s evident when you lay ears on his music, but a basic awareness of his methodology doesn’t go amiss.
In Threadgill’s compositions for Zooid, each player is assigned a set of three note intervals as a “polyphonic platform” from which to improvise “with an ear for counterpoint” (I’m quoting Pi’s website). In an excellent interview published in The Wire in 2009**, Threadgill explained this strategy as: “an intervallic language that’s kind of like serialism”, with intervals dictating everything from harmony and melody to improvisation. “There’s no formula that you can apply,” he went on to add, “the traditional harmonic stuff from the major/minor language is not there.”
But ears on, all that conceptual density is shucked off at the first warm notes of Threadgill’s flute and the uplifting bounce that’s immediately, emphatically present in an ample combination of drums and tuba. That’s in the first notes of “In for a Penny, In for a Pound (opening)”, the typically bustling first track on the first of this album’s two CDs.
Each disc has a short introductory piece and two main movements of around seventeen minutes apiece, each dedicated to, and featuring showcase solos by specific of Zooid’s musicians, e.g. “Ceroepic (for drums and percussion)”.
There’s plenty of space in this zingy music for everyone to shine. Liberty Ellman’s guitar is rhythmically prominent on that “Opening”, and cellist Christopher Hoffman takes a prominent early cello solo during what is effectively a coda on “Ceroepic”. The initially pulsing piece breaks after five minutes, and guitar and cello then dance an elegant pas a deux to light percussion accompaniment before the full group return. Ellmann solos again, his warm, clear sound picking dextrously through the earthy parp of kit drums and tuba. Then there’s another break, after which Threadgill leads a staccato group conversation from which Kavee’s drums break into their promised solo feature. An initially easy-rolling percussion dynamic shades into a downcast feel when the ensemble re-enter, setting up a short, more circumspect dialogue between cello and guitar. After a brooding moment for tuba and flute with percussion breakers, a sudden turn uptempo, as if into light, sees airy flute play over a mesh of guitar, brightly patterned cymbals and melodious lead trombone.
By turns funky and flighty, flinty and luxe, this is truly kaleidoscopic music, and Threadgill’s interest in instrumental pairing and sectional organisation are laid bare, clear to the ear. With his pithily succinct alto as an authoritative guiding spirit, each piece unfolds, every distinctive instrumental combination a facet of a satisfying whole, a refracted spectrum of music.
Henry Threadgill alto saxophone, flute, bass flute; Liberty Ellman guitar; Christopher Hoffman cello; Jose Davila trombone, tuba; Elliott Kavee drums and percussion.
Wadada Leo Smith – The Great Lakes Suite.
Mikko Innanen with William Parker and Andrew Cyrille – Song for a New Decade.
Milford Graves and Bill Laswell – Space / Time • Redemption.
Tarbaby with Oliver Lake and Marc Ducret – Fanon.
Buy In for a Penny, in for a Pound direct from Pi Recordings.
* Threadgill’s X-75 group of the late 70s had four basses, four woodwinds and a vocalist; his mid 80s Sextett boasted pairs of strings, brass and percussion; and his key 90s ensemble Very Very Circus set his reeds plus brass against two guitars, two tubas and drums.
** In this interview, Threadgill was discussing the then-current incarnation of Zooid and the music written for it, as documented on This Brings Us To, Volume 1 and Volume 2 (2009/2010, Pi Recordings).