Henry Threadgill Zooid

In for a Penny, in for a Pound
Pi Recording

By Ken Waxman

With battering-ram-like force, some composers thrust mammoth themes at the listener, creating an impression through the weight of their ideas. Henry Threadgill follows an antithetical path. His compositions are organized with pointillist insinuation; the true shape of the exposition is only obvious after every motif has locked into place. He has been experimenting with application of this formula since the late ‘70s, and after a 14-year history together has found his ideal vehicle with the members of Zooid.

Threadgill started matching his tart alto saxophone and chirping flute timbres with double bass and cello plus bass trombone or tuba with his Sextett in the ‘80s; he awakened to the possibilities of the guitar with Very, Very Circus in the ‘90s. Zooid is the streamlined version of those bands featuring one guitar (Liberty Ellman); one cellist (Christopher Hoffman); Jose Davila doubling on trombone and tuba; plus Elliott Kavee on drums and percussion. That’s why while some of this CD’s titles suggests that one instrument is featured, the tunes with their overlapping sequences and unique polyphonic, stop-time treatment, end up showcasing almost everyone. While Ellman usually state the theme, he never hangs on to it for very long. Like a squalling infant who has just wet himself, the melody is quickly passed from person to person.

Case in point is “Tresepic (for trombone and tuba)”. Although Davila’s dual mastery of muted trombone burrs and gooey tuba blats is brandished, the many false starts and stops, signalled by Threadgill’s strident reed vibrato, gives other players ample space. It’s the same with “Ceroepic (for drums and percussion)”. Kavee’s positioned bass drum subtlety is featured along with his press rolls, but this is no percussion extravaganza. If anything this track and other tunes can be heard as Threadgill’s alternate and wholly original version of jazz itself. Accepting the tale that jazz developed from a confluence of band (brass, reeds and drums); “legit” (cello) and folkloric traditions (guitar), Zooid presents that in miniature, but of course with the organizational and emotional flavor composer Threadgill brings to the music.

His vision is so genuinely overwhelming, and the contributions from the band members so perfectly in sync that you may wonder, for instance, how much of the guitarist’s slurred fingering or the cellist’s dueling-sword-sharp slices, to take two outstanding examples, are improvised. Should it even turn out that most of this music is through-composed, it would just prove that Threadgill and company are as accomplished as a composer (him) and readers (all) as they are as improvisers.

Tracks: In for a Penny, in for a Pound (opening); Ceroepic (for drums and percussion); Dosepic (for cello); Off the Prompt Box (Exordium); Tresepic (for trombone and tuba); Unoepic (for guitar)

Personnel: Jose Davila: trombone, tuba Henry Threadgill: alto saxophone, flute, bass flute; Liberty Ellman: guitar; Christopher Hoffman: cello; Elliott Kavee: drums, percussion

—For The New York City Jazz Record July 2015