Henry Threadgill’s Zooid and Anthony Braxton New Quartet
(Barbican, 13 November 2022 Review by Peter Slavid)
It’s received wisdom that avant-garde jazz appeals only to a small audience. That was definitely not the case here at a packed Barbican. The audience for this concert had been warmed up nicely by a ferocious bout of free improvisation on the free-stage, from various combinations of Caroline Kraabel, Johnny Hunter, John Pope and John Edwards.
For anyone following avant-garde jazz since the 1960s, The Chicago based AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) will have been a key influence. At the heart of the AACM the two musicians in this concert were, and remain, two of the leading creative forces. Between them they share a Guggenheim Fellowship, a McArthur genius grant, a Pulitzer prize and two NEA jazz masters awards.
Anthony Braxton is a prolific composer and recording artist with literally hundreds of albums to his name. He regularly collaborates with European musicians, and has recorded several UK based album. His quartet here, the New Acoustic Quartet featured a multinational trio of talented young musicians. American bassist Carl Testa, livewire Cologne based Brazilian drummer, Mariá Portugal and Portuguese trumpeter Susana Santos Silva.
This music is very much a composed ensemble piece with Braxton conducting using obscure hand signals, and at one point seen annotating the score. He also controls the underlying electronic drone that provides a constant but varied background. The music is dense and complex and completely absorbing. The harmonies and dissonances between Braxton’s various saxes (alto, soprano or sopranino) and the trumpet, were always fascinating. Testa’s solid bass enhanced the drone, and Portugal was a constant flurry of ticks and taps and rattles and rumbles.
A standing ovation brought the first half to a close.
Henry Threadgill (flutes and alto), Liberty Ellman (acoustic guitar), Christopher Hoffman (cello), Jose Davila (tuba and trombone ), and Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums) are Zooid, a long-standing combination which sadly hasn’t been seen in London for over ten years.
In a contrast with Braxton’s new quartet, Zooid is in some ways more conventional in structure. It’s a well established band, that’s been together with only minor changes, for almost 20 years, and it delivers distinct tunes with both ensemble work and solos. But that’s where the conventional description ends.
Threadgill’s music is always rhythmically complex and intricate. It has overlapping rhythms that sometimes sound as if the musicians are playing in different time signatures to each other. The compositions are driven more by counterpoint than by any conventional jazz sense of harmony and rhythm. And the unusual instrumental line-up facilitates an unusually distinct separation of the contrapuntal lines.
What makes this music so impressive is the way that the complexity creates moments of real beauty. A delicious combination of tuba and cello, powerful and inventive saxophone soloing from Threadgill who shows no signs of approaching the age of 80, and ensemble combinations where the apparently unconnected contributions all come together to create something new and brilliant.
Despite its complexity this is music of great wit and charm, and it garnered another even bigger standing ovation at the end of the evening.
Peter Slavid broadcasts a programme of European Jazz on mixcloud.com/ukjazz and various internet stations
Categories: Live review