Henry Threadgill
(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Krentz Ratings:
Air Song (1975), 7.5/10
Air Raid (1976), 7.5/10
Air Time (1977), 7.5/10
Open Air Suite (1978), 7/10
Air Lore (1979), 5.5/10
Volume 1 (1979), 6/10
Air Mail (1980), 6/10
80 Degrees Below (1982), 7.5/10
When Was That? (1982), 8/10
Just the Facts (1983), 7/10
Subject to Change (1984), 7/10
You Know the Number (1986), 7/10
Easily Slip Into Another World (1987), 7.5/10
Rag Bush and All (1988), 8/10
Spirit of Nuff Nuff (1990), 6/10
Too Much Sugar for a Dime (1993), 7/10
Songs Out of My Trees (1993), 6/10
Carry the Day (1994), 7/10
Makin' a Move (1995), 7/10
Where's Your Cup (1996), 7/10
Everybody's Mouth's a Book (2001), 7/10
Up Popped the Two Lips (2001), 5.5/10
This Brings us To (2008), 7/10
Complete Columbia/ Novus Recordings (2010), 5/10
Tomorrow Sunny/ The Revelry (2012), 7/10
In for a Penny In for a Pound (2014), 7/10
Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (2014), 7/10
Double Up Plays Double Up Plus (2017), 6.5/10
Dirt and More Dirt (2017), 7.5/10

One of the best examples of Chicago's fusion of theoretical issues and soundsculpting art during the 1970s was the career of Henry Threadgill (1944). He is emblematic of how creative music proceeded along two parallel paths, simultaneously exploring new techniques of texture (mainly through different combinations/juxtapositions of instruments) and new techniques of composition (influenced by contemporary chamber music but also grounded in the tradition of black American music, from ragtime to free jazz).
The saxophonist cut his teeth in churches and dancehalls and military bands, playing gospel, blues and rock music. Converted to creative music while stationed with the army in St Louis, Threadgill debuted, in Chicago, both as a composer and as an alto saxophonist, on Muhal Richard Abrams's Young at Heart Wise in Time (august 1969). In 1972 he formed a trio, Air, with bassist Fred Hopkins and percussionist Steve McCall, that immediately revealed his strong compositional skills. Relocating to New York in 1975, Threadgill became part of a booming underworld of artists that liked to mix different kinds of art. Dance and theatre became as influential on his artistic growth as the jazz classics.

Air Song (september 1975) contained four lengthy pieces, each for a different lead instrument: Untitled Tango for tenor sax, Great Body of the Riddle for baritone sax, Dance of the Beast for alto sax, and Air Song for flute. But the trio was truly "free" in the way they improvised around each other with no clear leader, hiding individual identity behind collective identity. Air Raid (july 1976) repeated the same format, with even more sophistication: the violent Air Raid for chinese musette and alto sax, Midnight Sun for alto sax, Release (sixteen minutes) for flute and hubkaphone, Through a Keyhole Darkly for tenor sax. The research continued on Air Time (november 1977), that boasted even more adventurous solos, especially in three complex compositions: the obscure No 2 for alto, the mathematical Subtraction and Keep Right on Playing Thru the Mirror Over the Water. Open Air Suit (february 1978) was a four-movement suite with the movements (or "cards") shuffled around. Threadgill on alto sax, tenor sax, baritone sax and flute was now dominating the proceedings. Air Lore (may 1979), basically a nostalgic tribute to Threadgill's musical roots, introduced a more accessible version of the band's sound, signaling the end of the experience. Nonetheless, Air Mail (december 1980) was still highlighted by the 18-minute C.T., J.L., and 80 Degrees Below (january 1982) was the trio's swan song, a return to the format and the magic of the early years, particularly in The Traveller, 80 Degrees Below '82 and Do Tell. As an improviser, Threadgill seemed to create a different vocabulary and a different persona for each instrument he played. All of them shared an almost scientific passion for complexity. So much so that McCall, the drummer, ended up sounding like the romantic soul of the trio (the bass was mostly running after the reed).

Threadgill had already started a new project, X-75, a nonet with four reed players (Threadgill, Douglas Ewart, Joseph Jarman, Wallace McMillan), four basses and a vocalist (Amina Claudine Myers) that had debuted with Volume 1 (january 1979), an album that replicated the four-composition format of early Air albums and showed how far his ambitions had come (notably Celebration and Fe Fi Fo Fum).

A "Sextett" (double "t") which was actually a septet (cornet player Olu Dara, trombonist Craig Harris, bassist Fred Hopkins, piccolo bassist Bryan Smith, drummers Pheeroan Aklaff and John Betsch) recorded When Was That? (october 1981), with 10 to 1, When Was That and Soft Suicide at the Baths, and (replacing Smith with Diedre Murray on cello) Just the Facts And Pass The Bucket (march 1983), with Gateway and A Man Called Trinity Deliverance. Ancestral melodies were transformed into angelic bacchanals by a system of performance that toyed with the timbres and roles of the instruments. The Sextett was a micro-representation of the classical orchestra, divided into three sections of strings, brass and percussion. Threadgill was toying with the basic elements of the symphony without actually abandoning the jazz format.

A new edition of this Sextet (Rasul Siddik on trumpet, Ray Anderson on trombone, bass, cello, two percussionists) recorded Subject To Change (december 1984), with Just Trinity the Man, Higher Places and Subject to Change, and then (with Frank Lacy on trombone) You Know the Number (october 1986), that offered more accessible material (such as the Caribbean Bermuda Blues). All these albums displayed his mesmerizing ability at deconstructing jazz music and constructing complex, twisting architectures.

A new phase in Henry Threadgill's career began with Easily Slip Into Another World (september 1987), de jure another work by the Sextett (now featuring Hopkins, Siddick, Frank Lacy, Diedre Murray and percussionists Pheeroan Aklaff and Reggie Nicholson), but de facto a quantum leap in eclectic arrangements packed into shorter pieces, from frenzied cartoon music (Award the Squadtett) to nostalgic New Orleans marches (Black Hands Bejewelled), from moody ballads to pure chaos, to chaotic mixtures of ideas (Spotted Dick is Pudding, Let Me Look Down Your Throat or Say Ah, My Rock). Threadgill returned to the four-song format of Air with Rag Bush And All (december 1988), whose longer selections (Off the Rag and Sweet Holy Rag) displayed the growing idiosyncrasy of his compositions, ripped apart by the tension between the organized improvisation and an almost parodistic revisitation of traditional forms.

A new septet, Very Very Circus, with two brass instruments (Curtis Fowlkes on trombone and Threadgill on alto or flute), two electric guitars (Brandon Ross and Masujaa), two tubas and drums, further increased that tension between future and past. The spirited, denser and ever more eccentric standouts of Spirit of Nuff Nuff (november 1990), such as Unrealistic Love, Drivin' You Slow and Crazy, Bee Dee Aff and First Church Of This (Threadgill's best flute workout) coexisted with almost radio-friendly numbers (Hope A Hope A). Replacing the trombone with a French horn, Too Much Sugar For a Dime (1993) focused on sonic exploration in Little Pocket Size Demons and Try Some Ammonia; and, to increase the sense of displacement, In Touch and Better Wrapped Better Unrapped added three violins and lots of percussion (the former also vocals). With neither trombone nor French horn, Songs Out of my Trees (august 1993) delivered pieces without saxophone but with three guitars (Over the River Club, Crea), a piece with accordion, harpsichord and cello (Grief) and the gopsel-y Song Out Of My Trees with organ. Carry The Day (1994) reintroduced the French horn and added Chinese stringed pipa, accordion, violin and vocals (Come Carry the Day, Vivjanrondirski, Hyla Crucifer), but also indulged in more linear jazz playing (Between Orchids Lillies Blind Eyes and Crickets). Very Very Circus' chaotic music peaked (as far as chaos goes) with Makin' a Move (june 1995): Noisy Flowers was scored for piano (Myra Melford) and guitar quartet (no sax, no French horn), The Mockinbird Sin for guitar quartet and cello trio, and Refined Poverty for alto saxophone and cello trio. The "regular" pieces (Official Silence, Like It Feels, Dirty in the Right Places, Make Hot and Give) for sax, French horn, two guitars, two tubas and drums harked back to the Sextett.

Threadgill pared down the ensemble to a quintet (Ross, Tony Cedras on accordion and harmonium, Stomu Takeishi on fretless bass, drums) to form Make A Move, that debuted on Where's Your Cup (august 1996). Pieces such as 100 Year Old Game, Where's Your Cup, And This, The Flew and Go To Far merely increased the sense of puzzle-like hyper-fusion musical structures. Replacing Cendras with Bryan Carrott on vibes and marimba, and introducing new Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto, caused Everybodys Mouth's a Book (february 2001) to sound more constricted (albeit benefiting the austere Platinum Inside Straight).

A new ensemble, the acoustic, multi-ethnic and string-driven Zooid (British guitarist Liberty Ellman, Moroccan oud player Tarik Benbrahim, Puertorican tuba player Jose Davila, cellist Dana Leong, Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto), debuted on Up Popped the Two Lips (april 2001), had a more exotic and neoclassical feel that better represented Threadgill's elegant eccentricity (Around My Goose).

Henry Threadgill's first release in eight years, Zooid's This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (november 2008) featured Liberty Ellman (guitar), Jose Davila (trombone and tuba), Stomu Takeishi (bass guitar) and Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums). This Brings Us To, vol. 2 (november 2008) delivered more music recorded at the same session. Their Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry (2012) added Christopher Hoffman on cello.

The ten-disc box-set Complete Novus/Columbia Recordings (Mosaic, 2010) collects all of Henry Threadgill's albums recorded with Arista/Novus and Columbia labels, including the unreleased X-75 Vol. 2 (january 1979).

(Translation by/ Tradotto da Luca Magnano)

La carriera di Henry Threadgill (1944) esemplifica nel migliore dei modi la fusione, elaborata a Chicago, tra istanze teoriche e ricerca sonora. Threadgill è emblematico di come la creatività musicale si sia evoluta su due percorsi paralleli, esplorando simultaneamente innovazioni strutturali (prevalentemente mediante nuove combinazioni di strumenti) e nuovi metodi compositivi (con l'influenza prevalente della musica cameristica contemporanea ma anche delle tradizioni afroamericane, dal ragtime al free jazz).

Il sassofonista si fece le ossa tra chiese, sale da ballo e bande militari, suonando gospel, blues e rock. Threadgill si convertì alla musica creativa quando era di stanza con l'esercito a St. Louis, e debuttò a Chicago come compositore e sassofonista contralto, in Young at Heart Wise in Time (agosto 1969) di Muhal Richard Abrams. Nel 1972 fondò con Fred Hopkins al basso e Steve McCall alle percussioni un trio, Air, che rivelò immediatamente le sue eccellenti doti compositive. Trasferendosi a New York nel 1975, Threadgill divenne parte dell'esplosivo sottobosco di artisti che amavano combinare diverse forme espressive. Danza e teatro influenzarono la sua crescita artistica almeno quanto i classici del jazz.

Air Song (settembre 1975) contiene quattro lunghi brani, ognuno dei quali ha un diverso strumento solista: Untitled Tango sax tenore, Great Body of the Riddle sax baritono, Dance of the Beast sax contralto, e Air Song flauto. Ma il trio era veramente “libero” (free) in quanto improvvisava senza essere guidato da un vero e proprio leader, celando ogni identità individuale dietro a una collettiva.  Air Raid (luglio 1976) ha il medesimo formato, un po' più sofisticato: la violenta Air Raid per suona (un oboe cinese) e sax contralto, Midnight Sun per sax contralto, Release (di sedici minuti) per flauto e hubkaphone (uno set di percussioni improvvisato), Through a Keyhole Darkly per sax tenore. Il lavoro di ricerca continuò con Air Time (novembre 1977), che vanta di assoli anche più avventurosi, specialmente in tre complesse composizioni: la oscura No 2 per sax contralto, la matematica Subtraction e Keep Right on Playing Thru the Mirror Over the Water. Open Air Suit (febbraio 1978) è una suite in quattro sezioni (o "carte") mescolate. Threadgill (sax contralto, sax tenore, sax baritono e flauto) guidava, in quella fase, le operazioni. Air Lore (maggio 1979), sostanzialmente un nostalgico omaggio alle radici musicali di Threadgill, introduce una versione più accessibile del suono del gruppo, e ne preannuncia la fine. Tuttavia, Air Mail (dicembre 1980) risalta ancora per C.T., J.L., di diciotto minuti, e 80 Degrees Below (gennaio 1982) fu il canto del cigno del trio, un ritorno al formato e alla magia dei primi anni, in particolare in The Traveller, 80 Degrees Below '82 e Do Tell. Come improvvisatore, Threadgill sembrava creare un nuovo linguaggio e un nuovo personaggio musicale per ogni strumento che suonava. Ma in tutti i casi rimaneva costante un gusto quasi scientifico per la complessità. Al punto che McCall, il batterista, finì per suonare come l'anima romantica del trio (il basso quasi sempre rincorreva gli strumenti ad ancia).

Threadgill aveva già avviato un nuovo progetto, X-75, un nonetto con quattro ance (Threadgill, Douglas Ewart, Joseph Jarman, Wallace McMillan), quattro bassi e una cantante (Amina Claudine Myers) che aveva debuttato con Volume 1 (gennaio 1979), un disco che replicava il formato in quattro parti dei primi album degli Air e mostrava fino a che punto si erano sviluppate le ambizioni musicali di Henry Threadgill (in particolare in Celebration e Fe Fi Fo Fum).

Un sestetto designato in inglese con la grafia alterata "Sextett" (doppia "t"), che di fatto era un settetto (Olu Dara alla cornetta, Craig Harris al trombone, Fred Hopkins al contrabbasso, Bryan Smith che suonava un contrabbasso con un'accordatura più alta di un'ottava (piccolo bass), Pheeroan Aklaff e John Betsch alla batteria) incise When Was That? (ottobre 1981), con 10 to 1, When Was That e Soft Suicide at the Baths, e (con Diedre Murray al violoncello al posto di Smith) Just the Facts And Pass The Bucket (marzo 1983), con Gateway e A Man Called Trinity Deliverance. Melodie ancestrali si mutavano in baccanali angelici grazie a un sistema di performance che giocava con i ruoli e i timbri degli strumenti. Il Sextett era una versione in miniatura dell'orchestra classica, divisa in tre sezioni con archi, ottoni e percussioni. Threadgill giocava con gli elementi essenziali della sinfonia, ma di fatto senza abbandonare le forme del jazz.

Una riedizione di questo sestetto (con Rasul Siddik alla tromba, Ray Anderson al trombone, poi contrabbasso, violoncello, due percussionisti) incise Subject To Change (dicembre 1984), con Just Trinity the Man, Higher Places e Subject to Change, e poi (con Frank Lacy al trombone) You Know the Number (ottobre 1986), composto di materiali più accessibili (come la caraibica Bermuda Blues). Tutti questi dischi dimostrano l'elettrizzante capacità di Threadgill nel decostruire il jazz per creare architetture sonore complesse e tortuose.

Una nuova fase della carriera di Henry Threadgill iniziò con Easily Slip Into Another World (settembre 1987), di nome un altro disco del Sextett (di cui ora facevano parte Hopkins, Siddick, Frank Lacy, Diedre Murray e i percussionisti Pheeroan Aklaff e Reggie Nicholson), ma di fatto un viaggio nel tempo con brevi brani dagli arrangiamenti eclettici, dalla frenetica musica da cartone animato (Award the Squadtett) a marce nostalgiche di New Orleans (Black Hands Bejewelled), da malinconiche ballad a caos puro, a vorticose misture di idee (Spotted Dick is Pudding, Let Me Look Down Your Throat or Say Ah, My Rock). Threadgill tornò al formato in quattro brani, sperimentato con gli Air, nel disco Rag Bush And All (dicembre 1988), le cui sezioni più lunghe (Off the Rag e Sweet Holy Rag) mettevano in luce la crescente idiosincrasia delle sue composizioni, tese tra l'improvvisazione organizzata e la rivisitazione quasi parodica di forme tradizionali.

Un nuovo settetto, Very Very Circus, con due fiati (Curtis Fowlkes al trombone, Threadgill a sax contralto e flauto), due chitarre elettriche (Brandon Ross e Masujaa), due bassi tuba e batteria, sviluppò ulteriormente la tensione tra futuro e passato. Le atmosfere spiritate, più dense e ancora più eccentriche che si trovano in Spirit of Nuff Nuff (novembre 1990), con Unrealistic Love, Drivin' You Slow and Crazy, Bee Dee Aff e First Church Of This (il migliore pezzo per flauto di Threadgill) coesistono con brani quasi radiofonici (Hope A Hope A). Sostituendo il trombone con un corno francese, Too Much Sugar For a Dime (1993) si concentra sull'esplorazione sonora in Little Pocket Size Demons e Try Some Ammonia; e, per aumentare ancora si più il senso di spaesamento, in In Touch e Better Wrapped Better Unrapped si aggiungono tre violini e numerose percussioni (e nel primo dei due brani due figurano anche voci). Senza trombone e corno francese, Songs Out of my Trees (agosto 1993) contiene brani senza sax ma con tre chitarre (Over the River Club, Crea), un pezzo con fisarmonica cromatica, clavicembalo e violoncello (Grief) e il brano in stile gospel Song Out Of My Trees in cui si impiega un organo. Carry The Day (1994) reintroduce il corno francese e aggiunge il cordofono cinese pipa, fisarmonica, violino e voci (Come Carry the Day, Vivjanrondirski, Hyla Crucifer), ma indulge anche in uno stile jazz più lineare (Between Orchids Lillies Blind Eyes and Crickets). La musica molto caotica dei Very Very Circus culminò (ad oggi) con Makin' a Move (giugno 1995): Noisy Flowers è scritto per piano (Myra Melford) e un quartetto di chitarre (senza sax, senza corno francese), The Mockinbird Sin per quartetto di chitarre e trio di violoncelli, e Refined Poverty per sax contralto e trio di violoncelli. I brani più “regolari” (Official Silence, Like It Feels, Dirty in the Right Places, Make Hot and Give) con sax, corno francese, due chitarre, due bassi tuba e batteria richiamano all'orecchio il vecchio Sextett.

Threadgill ridusse la formazione a un quintetto (Ross, Tony Cedras a fisarmonica cromatica e armonium, Stomu Takeishi al basso fretless, e un batterista) per fondare Make A Move, che debuttò con Where's Your Cup (agosto 1996). Brani come 100 Year Old Game, Where's Your Cup, And This, The Flew e Go To Far non fecero che accrescere il senso di una enigmatica iper-fusion. Con la sostituzione di Cendras con Bryan Carrott a vibrafono e marimba, e l'aggiunta del nuovo batterista cubano Dafnis Prieto, Everybodys Mouth's a Book (febbraio 2001) suona più restrittivo (nonostante l'austera Platinum Inside Straight).

Un nuovo gruppo, gli acustici e multietnici Zooid, in cui i cordofoni hanno un ruolo primario (il chitarrista inglese Liberty Ellman, il suonatore di oud Tarik Benbrahim, marocchino, il portoricano Jose Davila al basso tuba, il violoncellista Dana Leong, e di nuovo il batterista cubano Dafnis Prieto), debuttarono con Up Popped the Two Lips (aprile 2001), con un suono più esotico e neoclassico, che rappresenta al meglio l'elegante eccentricità di Threadgill (Around My Goose).

La prima uscita di Henry Threadgill dopo una pausa di otto anni, This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 (novembre 2008) degli Zooid con Liberty Ellman (chitarra), Jose Davila (trombone e basso tuba), Stomu Takeishi (basso elettrico) e Elliot Humberto Kavee (batteria). This Brings Us To, vol. 2 (novembre 2008) contiene altra musica registrata nelle medesime sessioni. In Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry (2012) alla formazione degli Zooid si aggiunge Christopher Hoffman al violoncello.

Il cofanetto di dieci dischi Complete Novus/Columbia Recordings (Mosaic, 2010) raccoglie tutti i dischi di Henry Threadgill registrati con le etichette Arista/Novus e Columbia, incluso l'inedito X-75 Vol. 2 (gennaio 1979).

Zooid's double-disc In For A Penny In For A Pound (a chamber work premiered in december 2014) assembled Jose Davila (trombone and tuba), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Christopher Hoffman (cello) and Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums & percussion).

Threadgill composed Old Locks And Irregular Verbs (january 2014), a tribute to Butch Morris performed by by the Double Up Ensemble: Jason Moran and David Virelles on pianos, Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu on alto saxes, Jose Davila on tuba, Christopher Hoffman on cello and Craig Weinrib on drums.

The Double Up Ensemble featured Roman Filiu (alto flute and alto sax), Curtis Macdonald (alto sax), Christopher Hoffman (cello), Craig Weinrib (percussion), David Bryant and Luis Perdomo (both on piano), David Virelles (piano and harmonium) and Jose Davila (tuba) on Double Up Plays Double Up Plus (premiered in december 2015 but recorded in september 2017) that contains the 23-minute Game Is Up.

Dirt And More Dirt (september 2017), which documents his "14 or 15 Kestra: Agg" project, contains two long suites: the Dirt (34 minutes) and And More Dirt (12 minutes). The ensemble includes: Chris Hoffman (cello), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Jose Davila (tuba), Ben Gerstein and Jacob Garchik (trombone), Jonathan Finlayson and Stephanie Richards (trumpet), Curtis Robert Macdonald (alto sax), Roman Filiu (alto sax, alto flute), David Bryant and David Virelles (piano), Thomas Morgan (bass) and Craig Weinrib (drums, percussion).

Zooid returned with Poof (december 2019), recorded by Liberty Ellman on guitar, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Jose Davila on tuba, and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums, plus Threadgill on alto sax and flutes. The album contains five sonatas or concerti: Come and Go for sax and cello; Poof for sax and guitar; Beneath the Bottom for trombone; Happenstance for flute and drums; Now and Then for tuba and guitar.

Threadgill conducted a 12-musician ensemble in the live premiere of the three-movement 61-minute suite Of Valence (inspired by Milford Graves), documented on The Other One (may 2022): Alfredo Colon (alto sax), Noah Becker (alto sax and clarinet), Peyton Pleninger (tenor sax), Craig Weinrib (percussion, electronics), Sara Caswell (violin), Stephanie Griffin (viola), Mariel Roberts (cello), Christopher Hoffman (cello), Jose Davila (tuba), and David Virelles (piano).

(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
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