Sunday, 20 November 2011

henry threadgill and zooid @ queen elisabeth hall 11/19/2011

words _ gian paolo galasi

Everytime I think about Henry Threadgill, the other name that comes to my mind is Eric Dolphy. Both multi-instrumentalists - and both flutists and alto players, both on a fertile middle ground between composition and improvisation, both responsibles for some of the finest music put on record - what about 'Out to Lunch!', 'Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket', 'Iron Man', or 'Too Much Sugar for a Dime'?

The fact is that as far as Eric Dolphy was ahead of his time - he studied flute and composition at Darmstadt in the '50s with Italian contemporary musician Federico Gazzelloni, but more than that, his practice of harmonic resolution was so wider than Charlie Parker's that his faster playing was resulting in fact so slow ... and one really understand why some of his best playing can be heard on his pieces for cello, vibes and bass clarinet, while his approach to group composing as heard on Ornette's 'Free Jazz' was so oblique and spacey that, compared to many big free jazz bands today, you really hear what the sense of instantaneous composition can be - so Henry Threadgill can be considered today one of the best composers you'll ever meet both on record and on concert. 

Few names can be put at his level: Anthony Braxton, Lawrence D. 'Butch' Morris (the only younger composer to reach the peak of this previous generation) for sure. Cecil Taylor. And such undeservedly underestimated composers/improvisers as Anthony Davis and George Lewis. Julius Hemphill, if he were alive and well. Not by chance many young players, the most interesting nowadays - I wrote directly and with great pleasure about them on this blog: skim through it to find them, then enjoy their own music - were working with many of the names I put down there.

And more, there are the musicians on the stage. Stomu Takeishi (bass guitar) came in the US in 1983 as a koto player (an instrument now well known in the avant garde / improvised milieu also thanks to the post-modern efforts of the second 'loft-era' generation, but at that time almost unknown as Japanese music in general), then deeply involved in studying and performing fretless bass guitar so to become one of the most sensitive performers on that instrument as far as sound and timbre - check out Myra Melford's Crush trio on records. 

Christopher Liberty Ellman was born in London in 1971 but studied and started playing guitar in San Francisco, listening to the music of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis and jamming after seeing people like Tony Williams, McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal, Oscar Peterson and, while in NY, playing with Trevor Dunn, Vijay Iyer and Steve Coleman, just to name a few. José Davila played trombone and tuba with Ray Charles and Tito Puente. Christopher Hoffman is a multi-instrumentalist - he plays cello with Zooid - and his range of collaborations deals with Marc Ribot, Marianne Faithfull, Bebel Gilberto, Willie Nile, John Zorn. Elliott Kavee has in his roster Myra Melford, Omar Sosa and Rudresh Mahanthappa. 

If you want an idea of what Zooid sounds like, think first about what the word means - 'an organic cell or organized body that has independent movement within a living organism' - and then imagine the music as made by six musicians dealing with all the sound dynamics involved with the timbre and grain of their instruments and their possible nuances, giving life to a slightly suspended groove coming from the same tradition Threadgill was involved since his first steps as a composer - that is, Scott Joplin and dance music - in which the listener can find suggestions coming from the blues, latin rhythms and flamenco, even if none of them is univocally defined. 

There is no single, leading voice in the compositions, even if sometimes Threadgill's alto can work as a collector of energies with its synthetic statements, but there's no dramatic call up, only a sense of suspended and gentle tenderness and a predilection for dialogue   - guitar and bass, or cello and bass - instead of soloing. Zooid is the more delicate incarnation of Threadgill soul, coming rightly after the extroverted Very Very Circus and  his meditative compositions on 1993 'Song Out of my Trees' and the four cellos and four acoustic guitars 'Making a Move' in 1995. The concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for a radio broadcast next saturday.

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