Henry Threadgill refuses to supply sweet, simple tunes

By Howard Mandel

When composer and reeds player Henry Threadgill recently led his quintet Zooid at Roulette in Soho, all elements were in place for a night of great music. And indeed, the 90-some-minute concert was received with a sustained ovation by a standing-room-only crowd. Yet even listeners familiar with and well disposed toward this artist might have found themselves uneasy. What is one to think when expertly performed works result in a less-than-gratifying experience? Is the music or are we ourselves at fault?

A critically acclaimed yet never complacent artist, 65-year-old Threadgill performs rarely in New York. He’s not one for multi-set, multi-night stands in the clubs—his last local gig I recall was in 2005 at the Museum of Modern Art’s Sculpture Garden. This recent concert was a celebration of This Brings Us To, Vol. 1, Threadgill’s first album in eight years and the debut of a commissioned work being video-taped for Roulette TV (broadcast Thursdays on Manhattan Cable Television).

Having emerged in Chicago as a professional musician 40 years ago, his aesthetic fully formed, Threadgill has persistently convened unusual ensembles to manifest a sonic vision that clearly comes from deep within his vivid, broadly informed imagination. He’s best known for the brilliant collaborative trio Air; his seven-musician Sextett; his two tubas, two guitars, second horn and drums band Very Very Circus, and perhaps his never-recorded Society Situation Orchestra. The members of Zooid—guitarist Liberty Ellman, tuba player Jose Davila, bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee—are Threadgill intimates, though they hadn’t collaborated in exactly this combination before. Cellist Christopher Hoffman joined them for “All The Way Light Touch.”

In the intimate Soho gallery space Roulette occupies, acoustics were fine, sight lines disturbed only by the four cameras documenting the gig and the audience was flush with musicians and fans ready for anything. What Threadgill and company offered was moody, richly textured group interplay, organized sounds produced with virtuosity and passion but few immediately discernable touchstones such as strong melody or cyclical harmonies. The band had a plan but its goals were elusive, its comforts few, its points resistant to quick assessment. Maybe that was the point.

Each separate piece of the evening’s first half seemed to begin airily, with Davila’s softly burred or limpid tuba tones, Takeishi’s fretless bass guitar figures or Ellman’s light-fingered plucks and strums underscored by Kavee’s loose, louche rhythms. Threadgill, at a music stand, concentrated on the activity swelling around him. The musicians’ gestures —more discordant than obviously connected—gradually accumulated, and then their leader jumped in on flute or alto sax with brief but insistent phrases. His posture upright, his brow furrowed, his hooded eyes dead serious, Threadgill expressed himself like an Old Testament prophet decrying vanity and other illusions from a barren, windswept plateau. The music flowed in a subversion of conventional instrumental hierarchy: sometimes Ellman preceded and sometimes he echoed Threadgill; other times he paired with Takeishi; fenced with Davila, or flew on his own. Kavee mostly maintained a steady pulse, smiling softly as if enraptured by a symphony in his head.

The commission piece “All The Way Light Touch”—which was the concert’s second half, lasting more than 30 minutes—involved somewhat more formal call and response, as Hoffman bowed scratchy clusters or precisely picked angular lines bouncing off Threadgill, Ellman, et al. No tune names were announced; no words said but the names of the musicians at each set’s end. Many more details were embedded in each piece than could be absorbed in a single listening, and Threadgill’s new album makes return visits to this soundscape possible. But still, the overall message was foreboding. The composer comes off as a seer with slight sympathy for mere humans. That’s a grim message to take away from an evening out, though such stark realism may be just the right prescription for those who want their culture straight, no chaser. Are we living in hard times? Yeah. Who speaks to that? From the jazz world?

Should a Henry Threadgill abandon his explorations, sugarcoat what he finds? Aren’t we as tough as he is, able to entertain tumult, find form in apparent chaos, embrace contradiction and paradox, listen gratefully to harsh truths? We may want simpler, sweeter songs, but here’s the real deal: All music’s not about pleasure, some wakes us from our dreams. The music didn’t soothe you? Poor baby. But it raised doubts, asked questions? No loss, no fault. That’s a valid end in itself.