By Daniel Garrett
Henry Threadgill with Zooid, Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp
Producer Liberty Ellman
PI Recordings, 2012
“Art is really not universal. What they mean by universal is that all societies and groups make art. That’s what’s really universal, but an audience can’t always engage with certain things.”
—Henry Threadgill, Critical Studies in Improvisation (2011)
The multiple rhythms and tones of the composition “A Day Off” on Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry by Henry Threadgill with his band Zooid probably does not surprise his longtime listeners, as he is known for experiment. That song begins amidst a low volume of rhythm that emerges with more and more energy and complication, and piercing tones—and short shrieks. The bass lends an element of funk to the song “Tomorrow Sunny,” with a bubbling rhythm created by percussion and flute. What is that smoothly sawing rhythm? “So Pleased, No Clue” has edge, space, no melody—only tones, some sharp; while “See the Blackbird Now” is full of long, sighing notes of a cello. The flute has a low, hollow, haunting sound. The song is quiet, reflecting possibly desolate space. The guitar is mellow, and the music seems to arrive in sequences, by turns.
The composer Henry Threadgill, who grew up in a family of musicians and began playing music when he was five, taking piano lessons at nine, a student at Wilson Junior College and the American Conservatory of Music, as well as the Longy School of Music, Threadgill has been creative and prolific, becoming an icon of experimentation. Henry Threadgill, a musician of piano, flute, and saxophone, was a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, in which he and other musicians pursued new avenues and supported each other’s work. Other association members included Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Amina Claudine Meyers, Roscoe Mitchell, and Leo Wadada Smith. “If you couldn’t give one hundred percent to that person’s vision, then you couldn’t stay,” Threadgill told interviewer Daniel Fischlin at the Guelph Jazz Festival (September 9, 2011; documented by Critical Studies in Improvisation, Vol. 7, No. 2, 2011). Inspired by Lester Young, Wardell Gray, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins, Henry Threadgill has gone places his heroes did not imagine.
Threadgill, interested in many of the arts, had a comprehensive bohemian sensibility; and, with a strong sense of musical conception, he is considered an eloquent and original composer in the field of creative, improvised music. He has spoken of not being confined by the European classical tradition, or the focus on the major/minor system of notation. His well-rehearsed band Zooid, which has lasted a dozen years (and succeeds Threadgill’s previous groups Air, Sextett, and Very Very Circus), has included acoustic guitar, cello, drums, oud, and tuba; and Liberty Ellman is the acoustic guitarist and Stomu Takeishi the acoustic bass guitarist, Christopher Hoffman the cellist, Elliot Humberto Kavee the drummer, and Jose Davila the player of tuba and trombone. (The oud player Tarik Benbrahim is no longer with the group.) Henry Threadgill has described the group’s musical language as “an intervallic language. It’s an intervallic language that’s kind of like serialism. Serialism is like when you have so many pitches, generally 12 pitches, but you can serialize stuff with six pitches, seven pitches, whatever. But we generally think of Schoenberg and 12 pitches. Well, the language, the compositional language, the musical language, the harmonic, contrapuntal, melodic language is such that we move from one series of intervals to another series of intervals throughout a piece of music” (Journalist Hank Shteamer, The Wire, Issue 309, November 2009). Yet, Threadgill prefers his group play ideas rather than methodologies.
Threadgill and the band Zooid have been celebrated as the playful makers of serious art, art of complexity and understanding and purpose, by the musicians Bill Frisell, Vijay Iyer, Oliver Lake, and Jason Moran. Threadgill sees, and hears, the music he makes as a response to all music, as well as to what is occurring in the social world, even a world in which disrespect and noise have greater presence; and, while recognizing differences in taste and values, counterpoint and improvisation remain strong elements in Threadgill’s work. There is a rollicking rhythm to “Ambient Pressure Thereby” on the album Tomorrow Sunday, rhythm that overlaps, parallels, creating great momentum and yet a good tone—and then a yowling saxophone, and cacophony. Shimmering percussion is in “Put on Keep/Frontispiece, Spp,” with heavy horns—trombone? Tuba? Some of the cello’s lines are classical—elegant, long, thoughtful. Threadgill may incorporate classical elements but he is not limited by them, nor is he limited by narrow notions of what jazz is, as he pursues creative, improvised music: “European music worked out a system, a good system, good for the type of music they were doing. But you can’t import that system to all music—that’s a mistake. So you have to let each individual discover for himself what the art is,” Threadgill told Daniel Fischlin (Critical Studies in Improvisation).
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.