Four Hits and the Ultramodern Blues

Henry Threadgill is one of our most important living players and composers. Unfortunately,  critics and establishment grant-givers understand this better than most conventional jazz players or jazz students. Full context for this anomaly is given in part three.

Threadgill could have won more hearts in the general jazz populace if he had continuously performed his most charismatic tunes. Of course, this is the last thing that Threadgill wanted to do. “I figured out a long time ago that going back for me is always a mistake,” he says in part one.

Thanks to his continuous forward motion, there’s an overwhelming amount of Threadgill music to explore. Buried in the onslaught of thousands of recorded compositions there is surely something for everybody.

For me, Threadgill’s genius is most obvious in the work of his Sextett, the group of seven players Threadgill led during the 1980’s and documented on When Was That?, Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket, Subject to Change, You Know the Number, Easily Slip Into Another World, and Rag, Bush, and All.

Four Sextett pieces I can’t do without:

“Soft Suicide at the Baths” from When Was That?  is a long, melancholy D major dirge that should be sung and played everywhere music is made.  Threadgill is in the lead with clarinet, singing out the tune four times, gradually getting wilder and looser and then subsiding.   Sometimes the trombone plays or it doesn’t, or the trumpet plays or it doesn’t, or the cello.  By accompanying above and below the tune at non-intuitive moments, the sudden lack of the trombone, trumpet, or cello can have the effect of a negative image. Only Henry Threadgill orchestrates this way. Some of mystery is unquestionably inadvertent:  during the loudest chorus, the band falls helplessly out of sync, still blowing strong (and wrong). He talks more about his rehearsal techniques in part one.

“Theme from Thomas Cole” from You Know the Number.    “A” is homophonic and vaguely “classical” in F-sharp minor,  “B” is a rare example of successful counterpoint in jazz.  All the musicians play the parts cleanly, without any raggedness or smudging.  But there is almost always a soloist who is blowing ragged lines against the pure texture.  Threadgill’s playing in particular is quite irrational.  It is impressive that a man can write such elegant music and then deface it so casually.

In the first “A” there is only cymbals.  In “B” each drummer is assigned one of the lines of counterpoint. It’s not an easy tempo but it never drags: nice work from Reggie Nicholson and Pheeroan Aklaff.

The last time through “A,” Threadgill varies his pecking “dee-dee-dee-dee” figure for the first time (at 5:45). This tiny moment of entropy presages the brief horn calamity that starts the coda.  A sonorous C-sharp 7 is eventually agreed on except in the bass:  Fred Hopkins swoops down to pound on his low F-sharp.  This moment (a prolonged V dominant over i) is found in any piece of Beethoven but hardly ever appears in jazz.  The tension is gratefully released in a satisfying blare of pure minor.

“Silver and Gold Baby, Silver and Gold” from You Know the Number.  Like “Soft Suicide,” “Silver and Gold” is mysterious dirge with a slithering microtonal Hopkins introduction.  But here the harmonic language is more complex, almost Ellingtonian.

Diedre Murray is unnervingly scored at the top of her instrument. The weird staccato note in the melody sounds like a mistake, but it is exactly the same on the reprise.  At about a minute into the track, Threadgill gets a few bars of Johnny Hodges-like statement, and you can almost hear the words, “Silver and Gold, Baby! Silver and Gold…”

The second chorus features an abstract Threadgill solo. The accompaniment of Murray and Hopkins (switching between arco and pizzicato) marks the tune’s harmony but doesn’t lock up anything like a piano player would. Threadgill’s last two impassioned notes—almost an operatic appoggiatura—ties up his solo perfectly (4:07). The third chorus reprises the tune with Murray an octave down, although the band makes it only halfway through before getting stuck on a dolorous vamp for Threadgill to preach over.

“Black Hands Bejeweled” from Easily Slip Into Another World.  In part one, Threadgill talks about writing everything out for the two drummers in the Sextett.  Hard to imagine, but in this piece I hear that the toms are tuned almost like a scale and that there is a “thickness” to the beat that is quite unusual.

Threadgill played with Mario Bauza, and “Black Hands” should be picked up by an ultra-savvy dance or wedding band.  The composer moves through mediant movement like a standard 19th-century opera composer:  The tune is in G, then B-flat, then E.  I adore the tiny bass melody, “G, A, B, D,” that calls the tune out on to the floor.  Tricky phrase lengths!  The musicians can’t rely on just having a good ear: they need to be staring at their charts to know which version of the cheerful off-beat line to play.  Nice solos from the ensemble, too.

If “Soft Suicide at the Baths” explores a certain kind of sadness to its fullest expression, “Black Hands Bejeweled” pursues a kind of perverse but genuine joy to the farthest mark.

During the Sextett years, Threadgill was almost really famous.  Some of the records came out on a major label and he was even the subject of a Dewar’s Profile.  But then that group disbanded, and none of his groups since have achieved quite the same level of traction. Perhaps part of the problem was the ascent of the Young Lions.  As I have written before on DTM, Henry Threadgill is the musician that could have really helped the Lions integrate the past with the present in a surreal and unforced way.  But as far as I know, no post-Marsalis straight-ahead players have a relationship with Henry Threadgill.  (Maybe that is just beginning to change…)

Another relevant aspect to Threadgill is how he doesn’t seem to have a clique. While he came out of the AACM, he is not tied to that aesthetic any more than anything else. He just loves to make weird and fun music that shows no regard for category.

That’s another way I wish Threadgill had been more influential: The jazz world was awfully cliquey for a time.

Threadgill is above those concerns.  He never needed to be part of the jazz world, then or now. Jazz’s loss is general music’s gain, I guess. He confidently asserts that high-level classical composers know about him and his work, and I believe he is right.

I’m sure a few of those composers are working on decoding the system Threadgill is using for Zooid. The last two records on Pi, This Brings Us To Vol. 1 and 2, showcase this latest atonal language, a language that definitely gets a certain sound out of the music. I admit that I could use the occasional non-language piece to offset the encroaching web!  But, again, Threadgill never looks back, and he’s hardly the first great composer to settle into a dauntingly abstract, granitic late music.

One piece really caught me:

“Polymorph” from This Brings Us To Vol. 2.  The point about the web is counterpoint, and Zooid specializes in having the five members hang out in different areas, each a voice in charge of slowly mutating harmony.

The first minute is a medium burn tune, then the solos begin.  I love the tuba two octaves above the bass!  Threadgill’s muttering, barely played improvisation is cool, but the most intriguing solo may be by Stomu Takeishi.  He and Eliot Humberto Kavee gather some steam, leading to a fierce final full band sequence that celebrates the blues.

The blues is in everything that Threadgill has ever done.  That’s one reason he is so important, and also why he has been able to transcend genre. In part one, Threadgill says, “I’ve always understood how music got created here in America, and that I was under no obligation to do any particular thing. I do exactly the way I feel, whatever I want to do.” That’s fine, but plenty of lesser American artists say the same type of thing with far less successful results. Threadgill’s natural blues sensibility keeps him grounded in something real. The conclusion of “Polymorph” is thrilling because the magician’s cape swirls out of the frame just enough for us to perceive that real blues in an unadulterated form.

Part one is about music.

Part two is about Vietnam, and features audio:  You’ve got to hear him tell these war stories himself.

Part three is about music.

“Four Hits and the Ultramodern Blues” discusses five favorite tunes.