In my latest article for the Brooklyn Rail, I lamented how the cost of living in New York City had driven out a lot of experimental musicians and put a lot of small venues out of business—the result being that summertime, which thirty years ago was bursting with surprises and discoveries every night, is now a haunted aesthetic landscape, unnervingly desolate.
The Village Vanguard is putting a patch on my despair this week, though, booking Henry Threadgill and his band Zooid for two sets a night, all the way through Sunday. This is not just good news for jazz aficionados—the house was packed for the first set and around 80% full for the second—but for anyone looking for the cutting edge of musical thinking. Threadgill’s music with this band is easy to place on the creative extreme of jazz, and it is great, but even more it’s important because his ideas and means go beyond the scope of jazz and put him at the creative edge of new music.
If the rule of thumb is the venue dictates the music, then this is a jazz gig, and the band—Threadgill playing flute, with some bass flute, his alto sax kept in reserve as a kind of musical flamethrower; guitarist Liberty Ellman; Christopher Hoffman on cello; Jose Davila playing trombone and tuba; and Elliot Kavee at the drum kit—plays with a style, phrasing, interplay and interplay that are idiomatic contemporary jazz. There’s some head-solos-head forms going on too.
At the core, however, Threadgill organizes harmonic direction, he structures the music with a set of guidelines to keep the musicians together through not just shifting chords but shifting tonal centers, and emphasizes rhythms from everybody—it’s like harmolodics but with actual theory to go along with the philosophy. The sound is of hellacious grooves and shifting harmonies that keep musicians and listeners on their toes and always follow logical procedures.
The music is exciting, even when slow and quiet. There’s a stimulating tension between Kavee’s propulsive rhythms and the solid, flowing pulse underneath, and the musicians are always stabbing at the music, whether soloing or playing in the ensemble, like hunters in an exhilarating fight against some grand beast.
Zooid played this difficult music with fluid mastery that has come through years of dedication. Hoffmann has been a superb addition to the band, and he’s now laying down pizz and arco bass lines that cycle through Threadgill’s harmonies; the rising, short cadences and two- and three-sixteenth note patterns could be coming out of the leader’s horn. The sound of the cello both opens up the bottom, with Davila adding gravity and body, and gives the band a texture that is light and spacious from side to side and top to bottom.
Ellman played with especially fine intelligence and beauty, his articulation was clear and ringing, and he placed dense sets of ideas into tiny, discrete, musical windows. When Threadgill picked up the bass flute, he used vibrato as a way to articulate a series of repeated pitches, almost re-attacking each note with his breath.
It can be a challenge to identify pieces from the records—I’m certain I caught “Ambient Pressure Thereby” from Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp—but that’s beside the point. The records, as good as they are, are really just preparation for hearing his band live, because the music they play is about the triumph of tonality, the existential adventure of improvisation, and the means of leading an ensemble along a perpetually undiscovered path. This is as fine as new music gets.
Henry Threadgill Zooid is at the Vanguard through Sunday, August 3. Mark you calendar for John Zorn, booked September 2 – 9. Be prepared for a Very, Very Threadgill tribute at Harlem Stage in September, and two night of new music from Threadgill in December.