Henry Threadgill’s Zooid – This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (2009)

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by S. Victor Aaron

In 2001, the avant garde jazz leading light Henry Threadgill had just recorded two albums he wanted released but couldn’t find a record company willing to do it. Quite a turnaround in the attitudes of the music business toward creative modern music, where Threadgill’s prior three albums were handled by colossal Columbia Records. That’s when Seth Rosner stepped up to establish a record company for the express purpose of getting Up Popped Two Lips and Everyone’s Mouth A Book out to the public. Since then, PI Recordings has gained momentum in the improvised music scene, signing up many of the best established and up-and-coming players in both NYC and Chicago: Art Ensemble of Chicago, Marc Ribot, James Blood Ulmer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Wadada Leo Smith and Corey Wilkes. About thirty albums under the PI imprint has come forth in the intervening eight years by these and other artists, many of them representing some of their best works. With the November 10th release of Threadgill’s This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 last November 10, Pi Recordings has come full circle.

The multi-reedist and flautist Henry Threadgill is one of the most important figures of progressive and modern creative jazz since the seventies, when he formed the trio Air with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, a critically acclaimed and highly creative band of its time. Since Air was dissolved around 1987, Threadgill has embarked on a remarkable solo career that saw him cement his reputation as one of the greatest composers of avant garde music in our time. Furthermore, he has been innovating on practically every record by shuffling around with highly unusual instrumentations and blending together so many idioms with so much command, he makes every project a magnum opus. Remarkably, he maintains his own singular signature sound through all the change-ups, one that is marked by highly intricate, thoroughly conceived compositions that blur the line between tonal and atonal. Even on the rare occasion where Threadgill is performing a song not his own, like one we previously spotlighted here, it still sounds unmistakenly like a Threadgill performance.

Threadgill has headed up more bands in his career than one can shake a stick at, like X-75, The Sextet, Very, Very Circus and Make A Move. Each of these combos have been distinguished by the instrumental setup. For instance, Very, Very Circus has two tubas paired with two electric guitars, a trombone and drums, along with Threadgill usually playing an alto sax. Lately, his ensemble has been Zooid, a quintet with Liberty Ellman, on acoustic guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, Jose Davila on trombone or tuba and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. It’s one of Threadgill’s leaner and more conventional getups, almost like a airier, nimbler version of Very, Very Circus. Zooid debuted on the aforementioned Up Popped Two Lips and This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 is the long-awaited follow-up.

Ever the tinkerer, the version of Zooid presented on this new release is a little different than the one that appeared on Up Popped…; the 2001 album featured an oud and cello, both instruments which are now replaced by Takeishi’s acosuitc bass guitar. Thusly, the music is less Eastern-oriented, but with Threadgill’s alto and flute—along with Ellman’s guitar—continuing to take up the bulk of the solo spots, the basic sound footprint remains little changed from before. There are many elements of chamber jazz present, as are shades of r&b, funk-jazz, and a splattering of other styles that are often hard to distinguish as Threadgill so skillfully assimilates them all together.

It’s fun to listen in on the shifty percolating rhythms Kavee is laying down, working in tandem with Davila who is usually creating the melody and setting the slinky rhythmic patterns at the same time. “Chairmaster” is a prime example of this trademark Threadgill arrangement, where Threadgill’s flute glides over the dynamic melody firmly established by the rhythm section. “After Some Time” follows along in the same pattern, but it’s a little busier. Ellman’s guitar has a clear, slightly stinging tone that is able to cut through the sonic wall and stand out, sounding nearly like an electric guitar (see video below of a Zooid live performance that features Ellman). “Sap” brings a rock demeanor that Threadgill matches with controlled intensity and raw emotion that belies the sophistication of the harmonies he masterminded.

It’s not until the brief last song is reached, “Mirror Mirror On The Verb,” where a song resembles more like group improvisation rather than a highly composed piece. The first track “White Wednesday Off The Wall” contrasts with the rest of the tracks, too; it’s a sparse performance that relies on creating angular, barely audible shapes, only eliciting minimal awareness.

Eight years is a long stretch to go between recordings for such an immense talent as Threadgill, but there’s several positive things to take from this. For one, he’s lost none of his ability to compose, improvise and lead. Secondly, the title ends with “Vol. 1”. That means there should be a “Vol. 2” to look forward to. And hopefully, it will take less than eight years for it to see the light of day. With Henry Threadgill, you never know what you’ll get next nor when you’re going to get it. You can only assume that it’s going to be quality, inspired work.

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