London Jazz Festival: Henry Threadgill

Fred Grand reviews Henry Threadgill's Zooid at Queen Elizabeth Hall, 19 November 2011

Henry ThreadgillFor fans of the classic US avant-garde, this year's edition of the London Jazz Festival has been something of a treat. We had Archie Shepp in full cry on Thursday, Ornette Coleman will be dropping in to the Royal Festival Hall tomorrow, and tonight there was an extremely rare appearance by the singular Henry Threadgill. The last time I saw this great AACM-and-beyond iconoclast was back in the late 80s or early 90s with the brass-heavy juggernaut Very Very Circus. MC Jez Nelson was clearly brimming with the type of anticipation normally reserved for Halley's Comet, and it felt good to be part of this packed house sharing the buzz.

Before we got to Mr Threadgill however there was the not insignificant matter of an opening set by Doncaster ex-pat John Escreet. Now very much based in New York, his aggressively modern music takes in a similarly broad sweep to that of Jason Moran and Craig Taborn. Performing solo tonight, Escreet began with a small cell of notes, working outwards with a logical development that recalled mid-70s Jarrett. With at times jaw dropping pianism, this was instant composition of an extremely high order. He drew his set to a close by dropping the music to a whisper, and it was clear that he'd done his growing reputation no harm at all with a thoroughly deserved ovation.

As the lights went up and the piano was rolled into the wings, Threadgill emerged onto the stage to complete his soundcheck. Never a man to do things the conventional way, he spent a good five minutes imploring the sound engineer to give him more mid-range. Everything adjusted to his satisfaction, the waiting for the performance was almost over.

Tonight's group, Zooid, is Threadgill's current vehicle of choice. Now expanded from quintet to sextet with the addition of Christopher Hoffman's cello, regulars Liberty Ellman (guitar), Jose Davila (trombone and tuba), Stomu Takeishi (acoustic bass guitar) and Elliot Humberto Kavee (drums) rounded out the ensemble. Following my review of their second album in Jazz Journal, I happen to know that a "zooid" is a cell capable of moving independently of the larger organism to which it belongs. There's a density and busy-ness to this music that often recalls Very Very Circus, and the group's title is a fair summation of their approach to "Harmolodics".

A riot of colour, at times it would have been a polyphonic meltdown had it not been for the funky back beats and mutant marching-band cadences. Takeishi's bass was so loud in the mix that it became a physical threat, booming percussively in the chest cavity. Not an unpleasant sensation, it nevertheless emphasised the extremes of high and low that share the stage in this unique band. I was struck by just how static this music is, in the sense that it lacks conventional forward momentum. Bass pedal notes seem to stack vertically, with the group centering around them.

All of the band were generously featured, and the evening's other ex-pat, Liberty Ellman, was every bit as thoughtful and absorbing as I'd hoped. Davila's trombone was, for want of a better word, "gutbucket", whilst Hoffman's woody cello was almost the antithesis, and a model of lyrical persuasion. I've already described the crushing oomph of the barefoot Takeishi's bass, but he initially cut an almost comical figure as he was almost dwarfed by his custom-made instrument.

Although I really prefer the more open textures of Threadgill's Make A Move group, this group packed an undeniably powerful punch. Threadgill was in good voice on all of his principal horns, and there's nothing else quite like his pinched alto in full cry. There was no encore, but Threadgill, dressed in a Maoist tunic,  did reappear alone to take the applause. Despite the sensory overload, we all wanted more, but Threadgill simply smiled enigmatically, bowed three times, and gave a small wave of the hand before leaving the stage. I'm not sure how long we'll wait before our next sighting, but this bold music is still ringing in my ears and will linger in the mind for a long time to come.

Your Comments:

Posted by Sen, 20 November 2011, 12:52 (1 of 2)

great review, an appearance by Threadgill in UK is rare and welcomed, now when can we get Muhal Abrams to come over ?

Posted by Stroud P, 20 November 2011, 13:28 (2 of 2)

Sound quality was rubbish - bass too loud, drums too quiet, guitar/cello indistinct when whole band playing - might have been coherent on stage (and will probably sound good on radio 3) but no clarity for the audience. Wasted opportunity.

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