Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards: Easily Slip into Another World: A Life in Music
(Knopf, US. UK £27 hb, £9.49 e-book. Book review by Jon Turney)
In the Summer of 1967 Henry Threadgill, saxophonist and tyro composer, was asked to arrange a medley of national songs for a US army band. The result, he recalls, had some “angularity and dissonance” from his study of Monk and Stravinsky. When the piece premiered at a ceremonial function in Kansas City, the assembled worthies were scandalised, with a Catholic bishop outdoing everyone else by shouting “Blasphemy!” before the band were eight bars in.
The event ended in disarray, and Private Threadgill, who had enlisted as a professional in lieu of being drafted, was reassigned. He remained a musician, but deployed with the infantry, in Vietnam. Nowadays, a much-lauded artist, Pulitzer Prize winner and NEA Jazz Master, he can tell the story with a smile(*) but it was clearly bewildering and frightening, and heralded an experience that reshaped him.
Threadgill and his co-author put his time in Vietnam front and centre. It’s a vital part of this superb memoir, and something that many of his musical generation had in common. The eighty pages that relate the craziness, horror and occasional weird beauty of his wartime service, with the trauma boosted by coming home to a community who did not want to hear about it, are a vital piece of Vietnam literature – these Chapters don’t quite rise to the level of, say, Michael Herr’s unforgettable Dispatches, but are often equally vivid.
In the context of such a toweringly creative figure’s biography, they also raise a general, and a personal question: “so many of us saw action”, muses Threadgill, “that you have to wonder what effect it had on the music.” For himself, once he overcame some of the shock of coming home, he is clear about one result. War transforms your relationship with sound.
As with every aspect of his music he touches on in this engrossing book, he is superbly articulate about what that means. There is an expansion of the aural palette, he says. But war also makes you hear differently: “Your body learns quickly that listening can be a matter of life and death, and that heightened sensitivity was one of the main things that shaped me into the composer I’ve become.”
The composer, and player, he has become is the other reason to read this book. Threadgill, raised on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s and 50s, is one of the most unfailingly interesting of the players who emerged from the US’s second city in the 1960s. He has a smaller discography than some. He’s rarely recorded as a sideman, nor has he, like some of his Chicago-born contemporaries, documented his every musical move in exhaustive detail. But what there is tends to be of uniformly high quality, each recording generally revealing a move on in his musical evolution, and the recordings, and the carefully assembled ensembles that made them, are covered generously here.
That, indeed the whole book, is a credit to his co-author, who explains something of how the book came to be written here – an oral history project led to a number of deep conversations with the saxophonist, and eventually the two ended up working on this volume as a separate project. Edwards is a literature professor at Columbia University, and an artful writer who has re-worked the interviews to put Threadgill on the page in a voice that sounds authentically his own.
The saxophonist was emphatic that he had no interest in producing a conventional “jazz biography”, and the collaboration does bring something fresh to what can be a disappointing genre. Still, the book does include many familiar elements of such efforts: early inspirations, role models, false starts and obsessive effort, and a few well-honed tales from the road. The life is related more or less in order, with a few pointful departures from strict chronology.
Threadgill is a fine story-teller, and the translation onto the page very skillfully done. What really adds value for the music aficionado, though, are his reflections on his art. He is the instigator of some of the most tightly organised music ever conceived as a springboard for improvisation, and the results have been endlessly fascinating for five decades. Now we have a new collection of insights into the musical mind behind the work.
These are threaded through the book, from eloquent impressions of early influences (Gene Ammons, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, John Gilmore) to his late career compositional technique. And it is the way he thinks as a composer that is most interesting. Jazz composers commonly say they write for the sound of particular players. Threadgill does too. More important for him, though, has been to conceive a sound, then recruit players who can help him realise it. His succeeding ensembles have each been developed, then wound up, because he sensed a need for something new: “I start hearing something totally different. Sometimes I can keep some of the players, if they fit the new configuration. But first I have to step back to listen to that sound as it emerges – from somewhere far away, somewhere inside – in order to figure out where I need to go compositionally”.
This is partly matter of texture, and combinations of instruments that offer new possibilities: “When I change bands, I change sound worlds”. He is also enviably clear about what makes each sound world distinctive. That goes for the brilliant Sextett of the 1980s, for example, when he wanted to move from the sparse trio sound of Air to something more orchestral, including two chromatically tuned drum sets. He explains the necessity of pairing drummers so that one played on top of the beat, one behind: “When the beat is wide, you can put a lot of information into that space and finesse its delivery in microscopic ways. A commodious beat creates a sense of vastness in the music”.
He also explains in detail the system of combining intervals derived from simple triadic cells that he uses in his current long-running ensemble Zooid – a system that he says only sounds complicated, although he also relates that it takes players perhaps a year to get comfortable using it together. It goes with an approach to meter which strives to generate flow, rather than division.
That is the latest development and possibly, he judges, the last one, as the system seems inexhaustible. It would not be a huge surprise to see another change, though, as the mission remains the same now as when he began trying to work out what a composer could do, sitting at his mother’s piano – trying to enter “a world where sound is matter, and what matters is sound: everything is communicated and digested and comprehended in that form and that form alone”. And it is a world to explore in pursuit of another memorable ideal: “Art in life, art as life, art as inescapable as gravity: a force that sneaks up on you as you’re going about your everyday business and takes you somewhere you didn’t know you needed to go.” Like other moments of eloquence in the book, it reminds you that, despite the Bishop’s thoughtless aversion, the important thing is to listen, and listen again.
Jon Turney writes about jazz, and other things, from Bristol. Twitter: @jonwturney
(*)In this interview for the Library of Congress, for example.
LINK: Easily Slip... at Penguin Random House’s US site
Publication date 16 May 2023
Categories: Book review, Reviews
Great write up Jon, as usual…I’m waiting for my copy to arrive! The thing about sound and matters of life and death is fascinating.
Threadgill is my favourite living artist, have pre-ordered, sounds like an compelling read,