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The Essence of Jazz 

Henry Threadgill's anti-purity

Wednesday, Jun 19 1996
"The DNA of jazz," declares Henry Threadgill, "is a conglomerate of everything." The internationally recognized composer/bandleader/multi-instrumentalist explains, "I knew when I first listened to Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, I could tell they were listening to a whole lot of different music [besides jazz and blues]. It was quite obvious. And you wouldn't have had those guys who could play stride piano unless they could play Chopin. It's impossible. Chopin's music is what informed that aspect of jazz. All the best players, like Willie 'The Lion' Smith, could play the hell out of Chopin."

But today's so-called "purists," the conservative, media-touted "young lions," deny jazz's true heritage. Setting the record straight, Threadgill argues, "They're not even purists." They never associate European classical (or other world musics outside of Africa) with the jazz tradition because then they would have to admit universal musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, and Henry Threadgill into the canon. And if they did that, they'd have to come to terms with each of these individual musics, the study of which unveils a limitless depth and layers upon layers of fresh mysteries to unravel. To Threadgill, this kind of stratified music-making, which he traces in his own work to possible Indonesian roots, is close to the essence of what music is all about. He says, "I know that music is a teacher and a world in itself. It's a universe in itself. If you're open to go into it, it's a bottomless pit. But it's up to the musician or artist to be open, and it goes on and on."

Since the time he taught himself piano at the age of 5, an insatiable curiosity has driven Threadgill toward new experiences and new perspectives. The artist reflects, "I've always kind of been this way about everything, about life. ... I'm always finding things. I'm always looking for things. When I was a kid, I used to love treasure hunting books. I was crazy about Treasure Island. ... I loved geography when I was a kid. You see all these new lands, what the Earth looked like, all these different fruits and vegetables that grow on the Earth, all these different plants, the variety of people, animals, land formations. I always liked that because it's endless." This ethos of "searching and finding" naturally fuels the artist's music.

For more than two decades, Henry Threadgill has forged a very personal, constantly expanding musical vision, of which jazz is merely one facet. His recent work scoring Indonesian and modern dance and similar work in film and theater more than attests to this. Even in his nascent days among the avant-garde ranks of Chicago's groundbreaking cooperative the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Threadgill played in gospel, blues, polka, bop, Latin, and marching bands.

Bringing this broad-minded idealism to Air, his extraordinary trio with bassist Fred Hopkins and percussionist Steve McCall, he greatly intensified the band's range. The group's now-classic LPs, such as Air Time and Air Raid, set new standards for self-challenging, collective improvisation in the '70s and '80s. Like other masters of the AACM -- including Braxton, the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Muhal Richard Abrams -- the unit scrutinized conventional notions of arrangement and structure, and turned them inside out. Air Lore, perhaps the band's most critically lauded album, found exciting alternatives in deft pianoless reworkings of Scott Joplin rags and Jelly Roll Morton tunes. As Air evolved into New Air (a combo that introduced intoxicating vocalist Cassandra Wilson) and Threadgill set his scores to larger ensembles (from the seven-piece Sextett to the 20-piece Society Situation Dance Band and Marching Band), his vision never wavered.

From 1990 to 1995, Threadgill led the ensemble Very Very Circus, a singular septet comprised of two tubists, two guitarists, a French horn player (originally a trombonist), and a drummer, with him on alto sax or flute. The group met with incredible success, standing out among the hordes of "contemporary jazz" bands in two prominent ways. First, Threadgill's unusual arrangements of the instruments served to fuel the intricate melodic movement of all the voices. The tubas not only locked down the bottom end, but engaged in front-line melodic jostling, propelling the tunes skyward. The guitars functioned almost like pianos in their sweeping harmonic breadth. And the leader's resonant saxophone consistently added muscle to the fleshed-out compositions. Second, Threadgill's sojourns in countries such as Trinidad, Venezuela, and India (where he now makes his home) substantially affected his writing. One can easily discern the polyrhythmic strains of Latin percussion on Carry the Day. Threadgill's latest Columbia recording, Makin' a Move, highlights his India-inspired exploration of new approaches to strings. Here, the composer directs almost half the songs through various combinations of guitar-quartet and cello-trio charts, performing very little himself.

Change is the only constant for Henry Threadgill. He sums it up this way: "You have to make a move, get out and get some fresh air, some head space. But it takes a little courage because there's not a lot of security. You have to have faith that there will be rewards. And if not, then you move on."

Henry Threadgill and the Make a Move quintet play at 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, June 27-30, at Yoshi's Nitespot, 6030 Claremont, Oakland; call (510) 652-9200.

About The Author

Sam Prestianni


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