2016: The Last Word In Jazz

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We critics have spoken, and here’s The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll : The Record : NPR.

I am happily surprised to see Henry Threadgill hit the top of the poll—it is generally slightly more forward looking than the Downbeat polls, but still skews to the mainstream. While his disc was not my absolute favorite for the year, it’s superb and represents not only his achievements as a unique and formidable composer of modern music (Henry’s idiom goes well beyond jazz) but also as a mark of his stature. He has been at the forefront of contemporary music for decades, but the Pulitzer win seems to have impressed a lot of people, and if he’s become the recipient of some default votes, he more than deserves that.

I’m also happy to see that Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks turned up. This was not on my list because I have not had the chance to give it the concentrated listening it deserves, but his recent compositions have been hugely ambitious and successful, and his playing is ridiculously strong—again, this is a mark of his stature and he deserves every bit of attention.

Also nice to see Resonance earn so much attention for their excellent run of reissues.

Listening proceeds apace, and before the year came to a close I got to considerably more jazz (thanks to the lull in classical concertizing). My Top 10 list remains the same, but I also want to add these recordings to the list of worthwhile 11s:

You can’t go wrong with anything on my lists, or the one at NPR.

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Thread(ing) the Words, the World

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As a reader interested in the state of contemporary music, you’ve likely already seen that Henry Threadgill won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in music, specifically for his 2015 album on Pi, In For a Penny, In for a Pound.

Personally, I’m overjoyed. I’ve been following Threadgill since I first heard one of his records with his group Air, which was probably around 1980-81. He’s one of those musicians who’s work gives me immediate pleasure while at the same time I often can’t completely comprehend it, and so I follow with persistent fascination. There are many examples of his music that deserve this kind of recognition, and the award feels to me like an honor for his complete career. But the Pulitzer is interested in the idea of composition, and In for a Penny, In for a Pound is just that.

I interviewed Threadgill and Jason Moran, in the company of Raymond Foye, for the December 2014/January 2015 Rail (I have something of a history of writing about Thread for the Rail, and without his existence probably would not be editing the music section). We talked about the work, which was about to premiere at Roulette (UPDATED: Liberty Ellman has told me the recordings were made in the studio, the Roulette performances were recorded but not for release), and he described it as a concerto highlighting the members of his excellent band, Zooid. He plays, but he’s not featured—he’s the composer, which likely made it easy for the committee to see what this piece is.

Musically, it’s the culmination of a long, developing concept of organizing what is best described as contemporary chamber music along the historic principles of jazz. From Air, through the Sextett, and even the electric bands Very Very Circus and Make a Move, Threadgill has been looking for a new structural method on top of the foundation of African-American music: marches, rags, the blues. You can hear a march, whether up-tempo or a dirge, a rag, a blues, or all three, on every single record he’s produced.

What he’s been doing with Zooid, and encapsulates on In for a Penny, is combine those roots with a means to tightly organize harmony and modulation while also allowing for improvised solos and free group interplay and accompaniment in the manner of traditional jazz. (I discussed this with him a few years ago, and don’t want to try and get too deep into it in case I misremember, but Threadgill uses a central chord, then lists the allowable intervals from the notes in the chord, and the musicians are free to use those intervals to modulate, but they must remain within those limits.) With his trademark recursive themes and hip, funky pulse, you get music that has immediate physical impact, that is firmly tonal (though complex), and tremendously sophisticated. Great art, in other words.

(His newest release is also another composition, in an appreciably different style: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. This is a very beautiful record, a tribute to his dear, departed, much-missed friend Butch Morris—the music carries a deep, elegiac quality underneath a compelling, almost diffident, surface.)

And great African-American art, I want to point out. Threadgill’s work is the fulfillment of the AACM motto, the one Joseph Jarman would announce at the end of every Art Ensemble of Chicago concert, “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future!” As Henry said during our interview, “What a lot of people forget about is that historically black people in America are the latest things on the planet!” They are, and they have been giving us all sorts of the latest thinking in serious music for more than a century. Occasionally, people hear this.

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For more Threadgill listening pleasure, here’s a recommended discography:

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Henry Threadgill: The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note: a great bargain, and although not the most comprehensive collection, this is where you get Spirit of Nuff…Nuff, one of his most important records, the compositional ideas of Song Out of My Trees, and some decent (if not the best) Air, including a guest appearance from Cassandra Wilson.

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Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air: expensive, but worth every penny and pound. This has some, altough not all, of the Air records, the absolutely essential run of Sextett albums (You Know the Number, Easily Slip Into Another World, Rag, Bush, and All), the early X-75 compositional experiment, two Very Very Circus recordings, and Where’s Your Cup with Make a Move. That last band lasted all of two records, and is something of a sidebar, but Where’s Your Cup kicks ass all up and down the sidewalk. Get this if you can at all afford it, and even if you can’t (limited edition of 5,000 total copies, marked as running low as of the beginning of September 2016).

Pi Recordings: Henry’s label for the 21st century, with seven releases so far and, if the whispers I’ve been hearing are true, something else to come this year that is supposed to be crushingly great. This is where the Zooid band has been thriving. If you don’t need EVERYTHING Henry has made (why not?), and taking into account that Zooid has gotten better at Henry’s concept through the years, the records to get here are This Brings Us To, Vol. 2 through Old Locks and Irregular Verbs.

A Month of Listening: March 2016

First, the stats:

  • 32 new releases in 31 days
  • 147 new releases for the year

UPDATED: With embedded document to see if it solve downloading problems.

Current pace is for me to get through 588 recordings this year, which is holding pretty steady from the 2015 mark.

The Recording of the Week series continues to look at what I feel are the best new releases, but that still leaves only 52 for the year, when it is always easy to recommend more. So here are the other recordings from the past month that are my favorites, and are recommended:

    • R. Andrew Lee, Adrian Knight: Obsessions. The best review I can give is the one from Lee’s concert that opened the month. TL;DR, a beguiling and extremely well-made, one-hour piano piece, ambient-level dynamics but compelling all the way through. One of the best of the year.
    • Craig Taborn/Christian McBride/Tyshawn Sorey, Flaga: Book of Angels 27. This feels like the debut of the next great jazz piano trio, playing some of Zorn’s best recent material. The balance between the group’s fly-away energy and Zorn’s control is visceral.
    • Henry Threadgill Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. The debut of this ensemble and Threadgill’s composition at the NYC Winter JazzFest in 2014 was notable enough. Now both the group and the music have become both more refined and deeper. Immersive and accomplished.
    • Chihei Hatakeyama, You’re Still In It. I listened to so much ambient music in 2015 that the style has lost a lot of its attraction for me, but this is a captivating release.
    • Les Arts Florissants and William Christie, Bien que l’amour…airs sérieux et à boire. Available as of today, this is the first of what will be a series of new recordings from this great group on Harmonia Mundi. This is an anthology of songs and instrumental music heard, in the past, in both intimate and public settings. The dramatic and musical freedom and expression heard here is remarkable. (Note that the Harmonia Mundi back catalogue of recordings from Les Arts is being reissued at attractive prices.)
    • Brian Groder Trio, R Train on the D Line. Tough, smart, tight music making on the border of jazz and free. An excellent trio, and Groder plays the trumpet with particular verve and a big sound. Terrific in every way.
    • Hanami, The Only Way to Float Free. Jazz groups that play like rock groups, or play instrumental rock, are not a new thing anymore. But this new group has a refreshing take on the style, with compositions and arrangements that are marked by refreshing idiosyncrasies, and impressive ensemble playing from reedist Mai Sugimoto. (Release date April 22.)

December Early Listings

The Brooklyn Rail has a double issue for December and January, and will be out later in the month (the staff, guest editor and I are scrambling to finish up a deep joint inteview with Henry Threadgill and Jason Moran), so our listings will be delayed until then. But for early December, highly selective and recommended events, look no further:

 

  • December 4 & 5: Henry Threadgill’s Zooid at Roulette. As Henry described to me, this is a series of related pieces heard over the course of two nights, what he calls, for lack of a better term, concertos. Thursday starts with guitar, which is then interwoven into the remaning pieces, followed by music that features trombone/tuba, and then drums and percussion and cello Friday night. I would call these Concerto Grossos, especially from such a contemporary master of counterpoint.

  • December 3 – 7: Meredith Monk’s On Behalf of Nature at BAM. We are just at the beginning of a year celebrating the unique work of Meredith Monk, and this is one of the big events, the local premiere of her new music theater piece. Recordings cannot convey the physical life that her music and stage works convey, she must be seen and heard in person. This is the ideal opportunity.

  • December 4 & 6: ((audience)) presents Paralektronica at the New School. A performing symposium, and a great value ($5 Thursday, free Saturday), with the subject “electricity and paranoia, radio and Theremin.” Who could resist? Not to mention you will hear ideas and music from Felix Kubin, conversation with the brilliant art historian Branden Joseph, a performance from Chris Mann (and if you’ve never seen what he does, you need to), and a blindfold sound walk around the Village.
  • December 6: David Fiuczynski’s Planet Microjam at Shapeshifter Lab. Marked as one of our Undiscovered Lands in the October Brooklyn Rail, the Fuze brings his microtonal jazz/funk/prog project to Brooklyn, with the very special company of Matt Garrison and Jack DeJohnette. Man. 

* December 7: NEC Presents the Music of John Zorn at The Stone. If you missed Cobra in November, and didn’t happen to be in Boston earlier in the fall, come to this extended concert surveying the enduring, vital accomplishments of Zorn. His name speaks for itself, but the chances to hear his music directly are not all that common in New York. Here’s one. 

Henry Threadgill Zooid at the Village Vanguard

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.

Keepin' It Real

Links and Lists:

Jazz of the Year 2012

Once again Rhapsody is going to be hosting the annual poll of jazz critics that Francis Davis has been organizing for the previous six years, and I have voted in it for the third year running (results will be published January).

Here’s the ballot I gave him, plus more. The nature of the list is that it is a snapshot in time, as of late last week, and if I put it together again today it would likely be different. The relative rankings change on a daily basis, and some discs that I list below as ‘Honorable Mentions’ might find their way into the top ten, and vice-versa. What this means is that these are all fine recordings, spanning a broad range of thinking and styles. Discs in the ‘Honorable Mention’ can be as strong as the top ten, but depending on the day I’m listening they might have seem to have a little less of that certain je ne sais quoi, that bit of idiosyncratic music-making that pushes past forms and structures. One thing is pretty rock-solid though, and that’s the top two records which can go back and forth for me minute to minute but are the two finest jazz releases of 2012.

2012 best new releases:

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