In the latest of LJN’s series where musicians consider idols, or formative influences, Liam Noble writes about composer and multi-reedist Henry Threadgill, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2016 and an NEA Jazz Master in 2021. Liam writes:
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with what has become, post-Marsalis, the jazz “mainstream”. It’s a great art form, built on a flexible system that allows for expression and personality, but it is prone to formulaic stagnation. Some have sought to expand, re-write and occasionally blow it apart, and they are following a tradition of their own: that of the DIY American artist. Charles Ives, John Cage, Ornette Coleman, Conlon Nancarrow, Cecil Taylor: they all responded to orthodox methods by formulating their own, often using whatever they could borrow from wherever looked interesting.
I’d put Henry Threadgill on that list. The first time I heard his music, it felt like all my favourite things about all my favourite types of music had been thrown up in the air and stuck together. It was decidedly experimental, but you could hear major and minor chords, unadulterated, naked as the day they were born. Music in the twentieth century moved decidedly closer to science in outlook, with numerical permutations replacing the old system of tonality. Threadgill embraced that, as did many of his AACM colleagues, but he hung on to the hymns, spirituals and rags of his childhood. He threw out the bath water, but kept the baby close, dressing her in a Vivienne Westwood frock. The chords are still there but they seem to come out of nowhere, sharing space with the clusters and clangs of a post-serial landscape.
With this dual approach of compositional intricacy and nostalgic evocations, Threadgill moves through a dizzying array of colours: many of his bands use unconventional line ups, but he avoids gimmickry by staying committed to the notes. It’s as if he’s presenting us with shiny, enticing facades and saying “yes, but are you still listening?” Funereal dirges, afrobeat rave ups, intense webs of criss-crossing lines, he’s always preserving the groove and the mood but gives those hungry for some interesting pitches plenty to gorge on.
It seems compulsory now for music to defy category, but what makes Threadgill an out and out jazz musician, despite his eclecticism, is his sound. Like fellow alto players Arthur Blythe, Julius Hemphill and Steve Buckley, there’s a flame throwing intensity to his tone, but Threadgill takes it further than most. A couple of notes from his horn can pin you against the wall. The saxophone was, after all, designed to be played outside, and he sounds like that’s where he learnt it.
- “Off The Rag”: “Rag, Bush and All: The Henry Threadgill Sextett” (1989).
This was my first experience of Henry Threadgill. I think I burst out laughing ….what was that? Fred Hopkins’ bass thunders along under the theme, a rotating cycle of almost identical fragments in asymmetrical chaos, the two drummers going in and out of sync. Then Threadgill comes flying out from under it, riding on a wave of compressed air. It’s full of jump cuts and all kinds of unruly swing, but it all feels somehow familiar.
2. “The Ragtime Dance”: “Air Lore: Air”(1979)
Threadgill takes on the tradition and, with typical sardonic humour, goes back further than was fashionable at the time: to Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton. The leader’s alto has a halting, Monk-like quality, whilst the criminally unsung heros Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall tear into every tempo with a swagger that can dissolve into anarchy and back again at the drop of a hat. The somewhat genteel Joplin here gets the kind of treatment that vindicates his place in the jazz tradition.These renditions are like nothing else, and that includes Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton.
3. “Untitled Song”: “Air Song: Air” (1975)
I came quite late to these early records, but I love Threadgill’s simple tunes and the way the band can blast them open. Who else in improvised music was evoking tango in 1975? Threadgill’s on tenor here, which he later abandoned, but he retains that strangely intense vibrato whilst also getting stuck into some Rollins-ish angles. The theme’s song-like simplicity is deceptive, with every chord change a surprise that feels, afterwards, strangely inevitable.
4. “My Rock”: “Easily Slip Into Another World: The Henry Threadgill Sextett” (1987)
Threadgill’s titles are always thought provoking, but this really is another world, a place with its own gravitational field as ideas float weightless from bar to bar. The extraordinary voice of Asha Puthli (whose career includes associations with Jay Z, Neil Sedaka and Ornette Coleman) hits some jaw dropping notes here, backed by the luminous voicings of Threadgill’s horn arrangements. It’s like a skewed Strayhorn ballad, all jagged intervals and murky modulations, an utterly unique piece of writing.
5. “In Touch”: “Too Much Sugar For A Dime: Henry Threadgill” (1990)
This is from the second album by Threadgill’s large ensemble, Very Very Circus, built around unusual pairings (two guitars, two tubas) and augmented by various guests. The way he gradually introduces new material, ramps up the tension and releases it, yet allows the players to move around in the structure, is remarkable. Just listen to the opening groove and the way it suddenly falls away into a quiet tuba chord. There’s a meditative feel to it, endlessly oscillating between a typically asymmetric groove and a vocal/oud duet that keeps changing shape. Bill Laswell’s production gives it a kind of cavernous roar, and Gene Lake is the latest in a series of powerful drummers that can hold everything in place. It’s joyous and mysterious all at once. I once played this to a room full of college students, and one said: “Isn’t this the kind of music that people pretend to like to look clever?” Have a listen, what do you think?
6. “Come Carry The Day”: “Carry The Day: Henry Threadgill” (1995)
I love this piece, it steers so close to its origins yet is unmistakably Threadgillian in the way it prizes open strange new harmonic pathways. The opening chant with hand drums beautifully sets up the band, who are as usual not quite where you expect them to be harmonically. The alto’s solo entry is a distillation of pure manic joy, not a note wasted, an eloquent statement at the intersection of the avant-garde and the dance hall. I have no idea how anyone could not like this music.
7. “100 Year Old Game”: “Where’s My Cup?: Henry Threadgill and Make A Move”(1996)
A return to a small ensemble, but one that sounds big, largely due to the amazing Tony Cedras on accordion. His solo introduction is a mini-masterpiece in itself, you almost forget there’s a band waiting to come in and start the actual tune. And what a tune, a simple, plaintive phrase that then plays itself backwards over a kind of tango-esque groove before a tangled middle section leads it astray and back again. Threadgill’s mastery of changing key, mood and tempo is all over this tune, and the return of the opening theme is managed in truly symphonic style. Beethoven would have been into it.
8. “Over The River Club”: “Song Out Of My Trees: Henry Threadgill” (1994)
For those who like to accuse Threadgill of being a bit head-scratchy, this is the album for you. It’s pretty uncompromising in its austerity, and full of unusual tonal combinations, but it’s a sweet shop of timbral delights from beginning to end. On this tune, Myra Melford’s gospel soaked theme is at first accompanied by, then interrupted by, an acoustic guitar choir that takes it out, but never that far. The theme is sometimes overshadowed by abstract textures but it’s never far away despite the haze of tremolo in which the piece ends. Melford is ferocious and tender, and the strings dart in and out of it like swarms of insects.
9. “Happenstance”: “Poof: Henry Threadgill Zooid”
(No YouTube available – is on Bandcamp)
It’s taken me a while to warm to Zooid. Having been completely swept away by Threadgill’s weird party tunes and dark dirges, this new abstraction was a surprise. It’s not, however, a million miles from his early work with AACM, so as his music continues to follow its own path, it feels that in some ways it’s leading him back, away from tonality and into counterpoint and abstraction. The system of composition is famously complex, and I haven’t attempted to decipher it, but as ever, there are beautiful sounds emerging everywhere, not least the miracle that is Threadgill’s flute playing. The interwoven lines at the close of this piece are especially clear yet groovy, sounding like Webern’s abandoned plans for a marching band.
10. “And More Dirt – Part IV”: “And More Dirt 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg”
This whole album is pretty fabulous, a culmination of the complexity of Threadgill’s imagination: beautifully orchestrated, fascinatingly complex. But then there’s this last tune, starting with a sombre duet between alto and piano: again it’s that sound, centre stage, and it somehow changes the mood. At one point you hear him turn away from the microphone, just as he wrings an anguished smear from the instrument. It’s a magical moment, and if there’s any dirt on this record it’s in there in that one raw gesture. And as the rest of the band enter, they suddenly sound almost rough, like a school band at assembly, and us the parents in the audience strangely moved by it all.