Henry Threadgill, Master of Musical Mosaics


I’ve been wanting to write in some detail about Henry Threadgill and his complex, difficult yet fascinating music for a while now, but every time I’ve tried to get started something else has interfered. And one of the things that has interfered the most is the fact that Threadgill’s music is so extraordinarily complex and so unique that it takes extreme concentration just to listen to it, let alone write about it, and to do so—particularly without access to the scores—is frustrating and somewhat intimidating.

I brought up some of Threadgill’s music with the trio Air in my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond, in which I surveyed the entire history of the interaction between classical music and jazz (click here to read it), but certainly not enough to do him justice. The reason was that, although Threadgill did indeed study composition at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, the music he produces is put together from jazz elements in a way that “speaks” jazz. The vernacular of his music is jazz; the way the elements are put together follow jazz principles; and although the finished products are extraordinary complex, and despite the fact that he has also written for large orchestras (particularly Run Silent, Run Deep, Run Loud, Run High), the finished results only bear a superficial resemblance to classical music in the way they are constructed. If Thelonious Monk, as Ralph Berton claimed, was the Stravinsky of jazz, Henry Threadgill uses principles found in Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Ligeti (perhaps particularly Ligeti) in a way that more closely resembles the more avant-garde work of Ornette Coleman, Michael Mantler and David Murray, while sounding like none of them.

It’s difficult, then, to describe the music of a particularly brilliant lone wolf who operates within his own specific musical universe. This doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary to write about him or impossible, just very difficult. The respected down beat critic John Litweiler summed it up best when he wrote, “He seems to be deliberately challenging the audience: ‘My lyricism and mastery come complete with thorns and spikes, and I promise to yank the props out from under you’.” Essentially, and I am in no way trying to pigeonhole his music by trying to describe it in its basics, Threadgill upsets the balance that exists not only in jazz but in all music in regards to the three principal elements, rhtyhm, melody and harmony. Whereas George Russell pulled the rug out from under the tonal system by declaring that all music form Bach to Schoenberg, including jazz, was part of a continuum that could be defined by his Lydian Chromatic Concept, and whereas Ornette Coleman took one aspect of Russell’s concept—horizontal movement—to a new level by eliminating root chords and other signposts of tonality (which upset and alienated a great many traditional jazz musicians, though oddly enough, not John Lewis or Pee Wee Russell), Henry Threadgill works in small blocks of sound, sometimes thematic fragments, which he will then ask his musicians to play in the fashion of a round, with different players coming in at different places within the phrase or the beat. This in turn creates new melodic, harmonic and rhythmic forms. In a sense, it’s like taking three different takes of an Ornette Coleman composition and overlaying them, not in synchronization but delayed by a beat or a beat and a half one on top of the other.

Once you understand the principals, Threadgill’s music becomes easier to comprehend, but when I say “easier” I don’t mean that in the sense that modern-day retro bop is easy to comprehend. It’s more like saying that after a period of listening and study, Stravinsky’s late, thorny 12-tone compositions like Agon and the Requiem Canticles become easier to understand. No one is going to walk out of a Threadgill concert whistling tunes; they may not even be able to retain scraps of them to replay in the first place; but the totality of what Threadgill does will stay with you, however disturbing it may be to your expectations or musical sensibilities, for a long time.

Born in 1944, Threadgill studied not only composition but also piano and flute. An early member of the influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Threadgill also studied the music of Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse, Luciano Berio and Mario Bauzá as well as the music of Bali, India, the West Indies and Japan. This is yet another reason, I think, why his finished music strikes me as not so much within a classical tradition as within a “world music” tradition. In addition to these sources, he filters his music through jazz, R&B and the blues to come up with compositions that are distinctly his own.

Since I have been unable to hear his Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, In for a Penny, In for a Pound, and cannot get a copy of his latest album for review, I cannot speak of these works, but I’m sure that they follow the principles of all his music I have heard. Threadgill never stands still, mind you—he refuses to rest on his laurels and doesn’t repeat, if he can help it, concepts or patterns he has already traversed—but there is a consistency in his inventiveness that makes every excursion into his music remarkable. Earlier I said that there are very few signposts of classical form (as such) in his music, but one of those is the insistence that most of the ideas presented be cogent, i.e., they must make sense somehow. There is very little in his music of the far-out explorations of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, though they must have been yet another group he heard while in that city, which prided itself on an amorphous journey through each piece. Threadgill’s music sounds so rigorously constructed that the listener almost feels surprised to discover the improvised solos within it.

A superb example of Threadgill at his best is All the Way Light Touch, an hour-long piece premiered on October 25, 2009 and aired on Roulette TV on April 14, 2010. You can watch and hear the performance here. I think one of the most attractive qualities of Threadgill’s music—and this piece is no exception—is that, despite its complexity, he often maintains a low volume level which draws the listener in. To some extent I think this is because he not only wants the audience to hear each thread of the music individually, but the participating musicians as well. More interesting, to me, is his consistently “quiet” orchestration. Threadgill rarely if ever uses upper-register instruments screaming away at any point in his music. Mostly he prefers to use, for instance, a real jazz guitarist rather than a distorted-sound blues guitarist (again, to promote clarity of execution and line), a cello (to enhance the texture, often playing high in its range, simulating a viola), and a tuba in place of a string bass (again, texture…ever since Gil Evans introduced the tuba to modern jazz back in the 1940s it has been a favorite instrument because of its inherently richer sound), although he does use a bass guitar. Threadgill himself on alto sax and flute provides in this work and others the most overtly “bluesy” sound, yet his innate sense of construction keeps him from squealing out-of-tonality licks for the sake of shock. He always stays within the parameters of the piece he has constructed, whether brief or, as in this case, lengthy, knowing how it is “supposed” to go even if the listener has no clue where it is headed.

Every so often in his extended works, as for instance around the 20-minute mark in All the Way Light Touch, Threadgill will relax the complex, multi-layered rhythm and come to what sounds to the listener like a standard 4/4, but this is an illusion. Threadgill’s meter is always an illusion. He never stays within one pulse for long, and within a minute or two of the listener feeling comfortable he or she will start feeling disoriented again…perhaps even more so than before, because they thought the rhythm was suddenly “normal” and now it’s not again, and you can’t even really tell at which point it changed. Threadgill morphs his beat-shifting gradually; indeed, there will probably be some listeners who won’t even notice, at first, that the band is no longer playing a straight 4 until it becomes so obvious that you can’t escape the change, by which time it is too late for you to realize that Threadgill has expanded his spider’s web of sound and that both you and his musicians are forced to run around the intersecting lines of the music in order to reach the center rather than cutting straight through to it. I can describe this music more technically though I wouldn’t dare attempt to without seeing a score, but this method of defining Threadgill’s operating methods is, I think, clearer for lay listeners to understand. One of Threadgill’s online comments explains the contradiction: “It’s funny when people say things like, ‘The section in 5/4,’ and I say, ‘I’d like to know where that was…I don’t know where you heard that,’ because basically I think in 1/4. Beat to beat, penny to penny, dollar to dollar…I don’t want any sense of meter because when you sense meter, you see and feel division.”[1]

This last statement by Threadgill is, of course, both true and a bit deceptive. He may indeed always think in terms of a single beat, but in performance the beats combine themselves in ways that, as I say, add up to more complex rhythms and layered meter. As another online commentator put it, “There is rarely a ‘1’ to be found anywhere.” In this specific piece Threadgill’s second alto solo, which begins at about 31:20 following a complex drum break, is one of the few times one hears him playing “outside” jazz in the sense I described it earlier; but again, Threadgill’s penchant for musical coherency keeps him from going too far off the deep end. He plays specific notes, no matter how distorted, and not just “sounds” or “emotions.” In other words, solo and composition remain all of a piece.

Tomorrow SunnyWhat I find even more fascinating about Threadgill’s music, and his basic aesthetic, is that he applies the same principles to his shorter pieces as to his longer ones. A good for-instance is his 2012 album, Tomorrow Sunny. Here, he presents us with individual pieces with separate titles, and they are fine and interesting pieces in themselves. Yet in a 73-minute live performance given at the Library of Congress on October 25, 2013 (click here to listen), Threadgill folded three of those pieces—A Day Off, Tomorrow Sunny and Ambient Pressure Thereby—into three others not of the same vintage but of the same general style (Chairmaster, To Undertake My Corners Open and Not White Flag) into a huge, continuous, single “performance piece.” And there is no cultural clash, so to speak, when this is done because of his consistency of approach. Threadgill’s music is essentially a huge chest full of Tinkertoys or Legos which he can mix or match at his whim and still come up with something valid and organic. And that is another reason (sorry, Henry!) why I can’t define his music as “classically oriented,” because no classical composer of any era has ever been able to do this.

Indeed, Threadgill has actually shifted and changed his composition style over the years. His earlier style, from the era of Too Much Sugar for a Dime, was much more funk-oriented and less complex, but he continued to morph and grow. He later took eight years off to create a new method of improvising in a group setting, which led to his most recent band, Zooid, named after a cell that is able to move independently of the larger organism to which it belongs. Interestingly, this change of aesthetic has led to a simplification of his composition methods. He now uses mostly “interval blocks” of three notes, each assigned to a different musician who is free to move around within them, improvising melodies and creating counterpoint against one another. This method may indeed sound classical to jazz critics who aren’t musically literate, but it is in effect an advanced version of the time-honored “chase chorus,” which has existed in jazz since the 1920s, brought into the digital era.

A final question, however, thus presents itself: Is Threadgill’s music all more or less similar? Does this ability to be interchangeable make it less individualistic? That’s a question every listener has to decide for him or herself, since everybody hears music differently. What I hear is a series of complex works that, because they lack definable melodic structure and because each of them is harmonically and rhythmically vague, can be tossed together like exotic salad ingredients into a bowl of iceberg lettuce. Threadgill’s music is a smorgasbord of different flavors and tastes that, like cilantro or pickled beets, completely change the flavor and texture of each musical salad. And you, as the auditor, may feel free to pour any flavor of mental salad dressing on to make it tasty for you.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed history of the intersection of classical music and jazz

[1] http://dothemath.typepad.com/dtm/interview-with-henry-threadgill-1-.html


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