Henry Threadgill

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.

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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Notes From Underground

Then I should have chosen a career for myself, I should have been a sluggard and a glutton, not a simple one, but, for instance, one with sympathies for everything sublime and beautiful.

The new disc from Henry Threadgill and Zooid is out this week, give it a first listen at NPR. Call it jazz, blues, rock, R&B, it’s great, modern music.

Destination: OUT, one of the most important jazz sites on the inter-tubes, is six years old, and they’ve refreshed their raison d’être, their “Beginner’s Guide to Free Jazz.” Words and music and ideas, check them out.

The big show this week is the New York Philharmonic in a 360 degree setting at the Park Avenue Armory, where they will be playing music that makes use of space: Mozart, Ives, Boulez and Stockhausen’s fearsome Grüppen. If you want to experience it but can’t attend, Q2 Music will stream the audio on selected dates in July, and my friends at medici.tv will offer a free webcast of the event, starting July 6.

The great contemporary composer, Henri Dutilleaux, won the inaugural Kravis Prize from the NY Phil, and has done a great thing by sharing the proceeds with Franck Krawcyz, Peter Eötös and the Talea Ensemble’s Anthony Cheung, asking each to write a new work. And Sean Shepherd, with whom I share an enthusiasm for Lutoslawski, is the deserving Emerging Composer for the new season. The Philharmonic currently has an emotionally committed but intellectually ambivalent relationship with new music, and this moves the head closer to the heart.

And speaking of the Talea Ensemble, their recording of music by Fausto Romitelli is out next month, and I’m anticipating this as one of the best releases this year. Save your pennies for it, especially by skipping the Fiona Apple’s over-hyped and disappointing new record.

John Zorn frequently frustrates me, but I do dig his Moonchild band, and Phil Freeman’s review has me wanting the new one, and may have you wanting it too.

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Last year, the Dallas Symphony premiered Steven Stucky’s Aufust 4, 1964, and their recording is out now.

As an addendum to my posting on Debussy, Onyx is releasing Pascal Rogé’s collected recordings on July 10.

The Orchestra of Jazz Composers

Jazz has a fraught relationship with the word ‘composer’ and the world of notated music that is generally understood to be the Western classical tradition. It’s something like two brothers, one appreciably younger, with a different personality and spirit of independance, no small amount of confidence, but who still finds the older one worth admiring, even imitating and, in his frequent indifference, powerfully intimidating. It’s a modern phenomenon in that jazz is a modern music, only around a hundred years old, growing up in a world with extra-musical issues that can’t help but have an effect on the music-makers.

There are cultural elements that have worked insidiously to exacerbate this: the growth of academically minted professional credentials, as virulent and undesirable as clap in a submarine, the preference, as recording technology and mass media grew, for physical relics over oral history, and the cultural status of jazz through its first few generations, a mongrel American music played by Africa-Americans and Jews and immigrants, an art music that began as a dance (and drug) music, a home-grown tradition so young that it defies the very notion of tradition while simultaneously and jealously protecting and preserving it’s own basic dogmas.

Jazz and classical music are different styles with different criteria. They’ve met and commingled for about as long as jazz itself has been around, since Stravsinky picked up some ragtime sheet music and Bix Beiderbecke recorded “In a Mist,” and as human art forms, they share a common bond in the exploration and expression of intellectual and emotional experience. How they get there is complementary but so, so different.

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Classical music began as something some guys were just playing, somewhere, but through the influence of intellectual and liturgical traditions, the patronage of the artistocracy and the rise of the middle class with a desire to be cultured, it became the composer’s music. Gloriously so. Since the development of notational language, classical music has been driven by men and women working out abstract thoughts in their heads and finding new ways to convey those in musical instructions. The body of music is frequently called a literature, because it is a vast collection, on paper, that tells the story of the accumulation of possibilities, of how to express the word of God, of how to structure multiple voices in simultaneous conversation, of how to describe a journey through non-existent lands and the return to home, of how to tell the world the unnameable things one feels and, in the 20th century, how to properly rebuild civilization after two cataclysmic wars.

Jazz also began as musicians playing something, somewhere, probably for dancers. And since it began as the gramaphone and radio were replacing the piano as the way the middle-class experienced music, it quickly became recorded music. Where composers learned by studying the scores of other composers, jazz musicians learned by listening to the records of other musicians — aural/oral history as opposed to documents on paper. Jazz forms have almost always been simple, vehicles for the musicians to explore as a means of personal and group expression, rather than intellectual handiwork to be reinterpreted by someone else. Jazz was, and still largely is, song-based, and the composers were the songwriters who came up with the material and the musicians who added to it and made something new out of it when they played.

So, what’s the beef? It’s in how jazz looks at the role of the composer. There is no shame in writing songs rather than sonatas, and a good song, with a good tune, is in many ways harder to write. Identifying the songwriter — the composer — is innocent enough, but as jazz moved from a popular music to an art music after Be Bop, and especially after free music, the idea of the composer often became something of a weird, assertive cult. On records that were free, or fussy, and in concerts, it became a thing to speak of ‘compositions’ as an icon. It was always an odd experience, at the end of an Art Ensemble of Chicago concert, when Joseph Jarman would announce the band and the instruments they played, including ‘compositions’ in a performance that might have had only one stretch of music identifiable as previously being organized.

At other points along the spectrum, there has been fussy and poorly-written fuax-Baroque counterpoint from the Modern Jazz Quartet to Return to Forever, the stringing together of aesthetically related tunes into arbitrary ‘suites,’ and the bad Schumann of Brad Mehldau’s Elegiac Cycle and the vapid art songs of Fred Hersch’s Leaves of Grass. The right word here is ‘pretentious,’ and I mean it because in these examples I see jazz musicians working very hard to put over the pretense that they are something they are not, which is classical composers. They are not, they are jazz composers. There’s no shame in that. In fact, jazz has had important composers in the past, musicians making jazz and doing what composer’s do, which is organize musical material. And the current jazz scene has burgeoning examples of musicians rapidly expanding the possibilities in the music through compositional means. That they are doing nothing at all like Bach or Beethoven or Stravinsky did is good for jazz, good for all music.

Over the past few years, this movement has centered around Pi Recordings and the music made by Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Muhal Richard Abrams, Tyshawn Sorey, Amir ElSaffar and especially Steve Lehman and Henry Threadgill. Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang founded the label to put out music they were attracted to, and as Rosner explained to me, they were attracted to artists like Iyer and Threadgill and Lehman, who had either first or second generation connections to the AACM (directly for Threadgill, via Roscoe Mitchell for Iyer) and Anthony Braxton, one of Lehman’s graduate school teachers at Wesleyan (along with the great avant-garde conceptualist Alvin Lucier). Casting aside the dual formal baggage of the blues and specific and inappropriate classical structures, these musicians are finding ways to make jazz that expands on the possibilites of the style in ways that are deeply idiomatic, joining the handful of true peers who found ways to get beyond song form and still make music with improvisation, swing and fire: Ellington, Monk, Mingus, George Russell, Steve Lacy, Darcy James Argue.

Some of the most notable of these discs are on Pi, like Iyer’s thematic In What Language?, Sorey’s abstract That/Not (distributed by Pi), Lehman’s extraordinary combination of complex, electronic-based rhythms with spectral harmony on Travail, Transformation and Flow. More recent releases include Abram’s physically mellow and emotionally and intellectually deep set of duets on SoundDance, and Sorey’s consolidation of his more exploratory ideas into a forward driving and still highly surprising and creative style on Oblique-I, an intriguing disc that reveals very subtle and sophisticated compositional thinking. Sorey is creating a kind of jazz Minimalism, using repeated polyphonic lines to build structures that make both room and safety for dissonant harmonies, coherent improvisation and real grooves. This is the kind of thing jazz can do, as art, that classical composition is weak at, and it’s the kind of thing that jazz can, and should be doing, to break out of its own musical ghetto, where strange and perhaps insecure notions of tradition force a general conservatism on the music.

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Lehman is not the first jazz musician to pursue a doctorate in composition, that was probably Mel Powell, but he is one of the most important. He’s far too modest to admit this, but his series of discs on Pi have staked out territory in jazz that no one else has set foot in. Before Travail, Transformation and Flow, there was the unprecedented rhythmic complexity of On Meaning and the deliberately fragmented but somehow expansive Demian as Posthuman. It’s easy to explore the technical aspects of what he’s doing, like adapting the types of rhythms and changes in meter that for a while seemed possible only in computer software, through the talents of Sorey, to the framework of Hard Bop, or using microtonality as a means to build harmonic structures. The importance of these advances is hard to overstate: as much as swinging rhythms and improvisation appear to explore freedom, only using those rhythms and only working within song form structure is an existential dead-end, one that requires sheer virtuosity to break out of. That’s fine for individual talent, but deadly for the music as a whole.

If he had only tried and failed at these ideas, he would have a lasting legacy, but his music and records succeed brilliantly because they are, fundamentally and aesthetically, jazz, and jazz of the most physically and emotionally exciting kind. He’s a monster player, full of fire, extraordinary technique, and an intense sound and attack. His improvising is coherent, driving and incredibly quick thinking, and his bands follow suit. His music is so much more rhythmically complex than most jazz, so much more harmonically sophisticated and interesting, and so deeply satisfying. His latest, Dialectic Flourescent, with Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums, is closer to a blowing session, but with a synthesis of his experiments of pushing the meter and pulse around off center and back again, and with microtonality integrated in his playing in a way that goes beyond mere bending of notes and adds onto the harmonic depth. It’s a real showcase of what a great jazz player Lehman is, and the judicious use of other musician’s tunes, Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” Jackie McLean’s aggressive “Mr. E,” Duke Pearson’s hip “Jeanine,” and an amazingly intense “Pure Imagination” that itself harkens back to Coltrane’s most soul-abbrading playing on his Atlantic records. No jazz record this year could exceed it for sheer impact, and Lehman’s three night residency at the Jazz Gallery this week promises to be one of the outstanding gigs of the year, and is urgently recommended (Times and tickets here).

Lehman’s not the only musician to do creative compositional work within what is currently the predominant style of Neo-Hard Bop. I’ve been enjoying the depth and surprises in Tomas Fujiwara’s new CD with his band The Hook Up, The Air is Different. One of the strengths is the band, with Trevor Dunn and Mary Halvorson excelling at both supporting the ensemble and bringing in a very outsider-ish sense of taste — they move the music forward by teasing at it irreverently. Fujiwara has a compositional sense that shares something of John Zorn’s magpie approach, but without the cultural didacticism. The TV-Spy-Show riff of “Double Lake, Defined,” is the foundation for the tune, not a means to prove how hip the drummer is. Superficially conventional, all the tracks are loaded with unexpected swerves that end up being not only completely logical but completely satisfying. A very cool record, both for what it proves about how jazz can be played and for how fine the thinking and playing are.

There are also some recent attempts to write music that gets beyond standard jazz that don’t quite succeed, through a combination of flawed ambition and technique. Bassist Eivind Opsvik’s news Overseas IV and Joel Harrison’s Search don’t quite bring it all together, and what I hear is compositional measures that are too wide when they would work better with more focus and depth. Both these CDs mean to make large-scale compositional statements but instead end up like jazz concept albums, with great moments undercut by ideas that are overstated and underdone. Opsvik’s portentous opening track, with Jacob Sacks running through a very ordinary set of chords on the harpsichord, trades the understanding of Baroque structure for its sound. The track elides into “White Armour,” which furthers the problem: the leader seems to think that being a composer means making music that has longer duration than regular tunes, but Monk and Webern would disagree. As do I. Being a composer means creating and organizing materials in a way that makes sense, and there’s very little here that makes sense because there’s very little that does anything other than go on, and on. The talented band, including Brandon Seabrook and Tony Malaby, get very little chance to contribute anything. Harrison’s release is more successful, but it’s not fully realized. Some of the composing is fine and gets beyond standard jazz, while some of it just uses a small string section to add orchestral weight to ideas that the basic band could play well without making any larger statement. Harrison has a lighter touch then Opsvik, and appreciates that he’s still making jazz: the band gets to groove and flex it’s considerable muscles. Too much is made of this as a ‘composed’ record: there is solid writing but nothing that coherently transcends the form, like the way Dave Douglas’ compositional statements always end up being an undernourished skeleton for improvisation, just another fancy tune. Search does the same kinds of things Tom Harrell has been doing for a while, and those are good things that it does well, but it colors very much within the lines.

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Then there is Henry Threadgill, who has a new record on Pi, Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp. Threadgill doesn’t particularly consider what he is doing as jazz anymore, and he’s right, but it’s also useful to think of it as jazz, both because that’s the tradition he’s made his way out of, and because he and his musicians have so much idiomatic jazz in their individual playing. As a musician and a composer, his whole career has been testament to the motto, Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future, with one foot on the aesthetic land of cakewalks, Scott Joplin and King Oliver, the other seeking a way to structure polyphonic improvisation. It took decades of hard work, exploration, quietly radical decisions to get beyond “major and minor key harmony,” as he told me. He discovered his current technique through studying the music of Varese, who himself sought to break away from the standard structures of classical music but still work within the tradition of being a composer. Not that Threadgill sounds like Varese! The new disc is familiar in style to his music from the second half of Up Popped The Two Lips, the second release ever on Pi. It’s also different than previous ones, including the two volumes of This Brings Us Too, in part because he’s added the additional voice of Christopher Hoffman on cello, give him the ideal configuration of two sets of three voices, and the band is more confident and skilled in his method, which is both radically simple, like all great breakthroughs, and radically different than the way most musicians learn to think about music.

Henry is a composer, a composer’s composer, and he’s created an entirely new way to organize materials of music, creating tool kits rather than just tunes, means for his group Zooid to work within a common frame of harmony, rhythm and time while still allowing multi-faceted freedom to improvise, to accompany, to take time out from the movement of the piece to explore some interesting discovery and still find one’s way back together in key places. It’s fair to call this contemporary chamber music and also, because of the conceptual connection to traditional polyphonic jazz, to call it jazz. It also fulfills the jazz aesthetic of being music for your feet, heart and mind simultaneously. It also is a close companion to the music of Earle Brown, a jazzman turned avant-garde composer and one of the important figures of 20th century music, who, like Threadgill, created brilliant and unusual structures for organizing music that, as he said, would be both identifiable and sound different each time they are played. The record is excellent, more mysterious than the previous two but also so much more assured and coherent. A major event just by being, it’s one of the best of the year and will most likely be shunted aside by jazz’s musical and critical establishment. Lehman’s is more accessible, but it’s a lonely place where he and Threadgill stand, but the music is great and the body of music is so much the better for their contributions.

UPDATED to fix Damion Reid’s name and specify label information for That/Not