Henry Threadgill Zooid


Henry Threadgill Zooid
This Brings Us To, Volume 1
Pi Recordings : 2009

HT, alto sax, flute; Liberty Ellman, guitar; Jose Davila, trombone, tuba; Stomu Takeishi, bass; Elliot Humberto Kavee, drums.

Zooid: A cell that is able to move independently of the larger organism to which it belongs.

Wave the flag, bang the drum, and shout hurrah, for a new Henry Threadgill record is before us. We are incredibly pleased to be able to exclusively preview two tracks — streaming, at the artist’s request — from this wonderful upcoming disc. You can’t hear this music anywhere else.

This is Threadgill’s first release in some time. The limited-edition vinyl release of Pop Start the Tape, Stop in 2004 was so below the radar that the All Music Guide doesn’t even list it. And his last CD releases were 2001’s two-fer on Pi: Everybodys Mouth’s A Book and Up Popped the Two Lips.

Up Popped the Two Lips featured the debut of the Zooid ensemble. While it’s an excellent album in its own right, you can hear some tentativeness in the performances. This Brings Us To showcases the Zooid band in full flower, having spent almost eight years perfecting their system of compositional improv. Both as a band and as players, they’re firing on all cylinders. The new tunes are more nuanced, complex, and frankly, exciting.

“To undertake my corners open” and “After some time” are two of the album’s most propulsive tracks, effortlessly weaving solos into an ever-shifting pulse of brass and rhythm. The tunes offer immediate and visceral pleasures, but the textures are also more slippery than Threadgill’s previous work. Give them a few spins for maximum impact.

Although the music speaks for itself, we’d like to spotlight Liberty Ellman‘s astonishing guitar playing. His gifts have grown dramatically over the years and he offers some of the album’s most startling and immediate moments. (He also produced the record.)

Henry Threadgill generously agreed to sit down with us to discuss the new album and what he’s been up to recently. We turn it over to him:

On his compositions: It’s a language; the musicians have to learn this language so that they can play this music,  and we can play as a group, and accomplish a level of communication and ensemble [cohesion], like a baseball team or a basketball team…. That communication is past anything you can see. You can’t see communication on a basketball team. If you can see it, it’s not a good team. It’s psychic…that’s the ensemble, an ensemble is always psychic.

On notation vs. improvisation: [The songs on This Brings Us To are] notated and improvised. I can’t give you percentages on each piece. Regardless of the percentages , the level of performance and communication at that time — we were at the height of our communicative powers. We came right off tour and played immediately at the Jazz Gallery three nights, and right out of there into the studio…. You got to play when you’re hot…. Basically, everything was one take… about 90% of two albums was done in one take.

On his relatively scant recorded output: It has to do with the demands of the record industry. This group came together at about the time of the demise of the record industry…. I never depended that much on recordings to keep a band together. That’s basically the documentation…. These are just CDs. I  make CDs the way you used to make albums…I don’t believe in putting a whole lot of material on an album, just because you got the space, y’know? It’s like someone brings you a plate and fills it up with food, and do you have to eat it all? I don’t think so… albums, they were just about right, for the American listening public.

On his current ambitions: I would like to be able to do what I’m doing, 100%, without any problems.

Some of the artists name-checked by HT during the course of our conversation: Varese, Stockhausen, Bernstein, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Schubert, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Edward Said, Manet, Monk, Van Gogh, Reich, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Barbara Streisand, Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, Charles Ives, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Benny Goodman, Anthony Braxton, Robert Altman.

On art: The one thing I  can say that I’ve learned about culture is that it can humanize mankind, and make [one] more sensitive to oneself and to other people. That is the one thing that art will do for you. That is something that you can’t…it’s intangible…that’s why our country don’t see any value in it, because you can’t touch it…. It makes for better people… makes them sensitive to things…and [this belief] informs me.

Pi Recordings is having a sale right now; you can also order This Brings Us To there and get it first from Pi before any other vendors. The official on-sale date is 27 October. Those in and around NYC on Sunday, 25 October, will get a rare chance to see this band in action, at Roulette. Threadgill will unveil a new, commissioned piece for a slightly augmented Zooid, and the band will also play selections from the album.

So there you go. If you find this only whets your appetite for things Threadgillian, there’s no better place to turn next than the extensive discography and bibliography compiled here. And, oh, volume two? Look for it in 2010.

Discussion22 Comments Category album preview, Henry Threadgill Tags , , , , , , ,

Henry Threadgill Zooid

  1. fantastic post!

    i dig these tunes, though i have to admit that i’m so up on threadgill’s music over the past 15 years. can anyone hip me as to how this fits in (or doesn’t) with his more recent work?

  2. Thanks for the preview and the post. The tracks sound great.

  3. I got this record in the mail the other day and have been, um, OD’ing on it ever since. Great, great stuff. Liberty Ellman, for one, plays exactly what’s needed, but not what you’d expect, just about every time. The whole band is …have I already said “great”? Well, I’ll buy a thesaurus. In the meantime, cue it up again!

  4. very cool… i’m yet to hear a bad Threadgill record, from the tracks posted here this definitely looks like it’s in the essential pile. Thanks as always

  5. Great tunes! Has anyone heard “Pop Start the Tape”? I’m curious how these tracks compare to that album?

  6. Thanks for the Thread feature, gentlemen. Just to chime in on that last comment, “Pop Start the Tape, Stop” is both excellent and totally unique. It features some of Threadgill’s flute playing, but it’s mainly a feature for his work on hubkaphone, an instrument he doesn’t seem to utilize often these days. Probably the most out there of the Zooid releases but still very worthwhile.

  7. In the list of artists mentioned in your conversation with Mr. Threadgill, one name especially caught my attention: Edward Said. Is that because his essays are “full-blown” art, or because you (or Mr. Threadgill) consider every scholar to be an artist at the same time?

  8. Hey, Kai. As I recall, the Said reference had more to do with issues of colonialism, and understanding the Other, than equating him with an artist. We were just trying to give a shorthand sense of a pretty wide-ranging conversation. Hope to get more of it online in a later post.

  9. If you are looking for a music association re. Edward Said, how about his collaboration with Daniel Barenboim?

  10. No Threadgill release is anything less than an event, though one I wish would happen more often. A constant inspiration. Thank you, HT, and thanks, guys, for the preview.

  11. Preview tracks sound great, thanks guys! Just received an email from Mosaic Records and among their upcoming releases is The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air, slated for early 2010.

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you. EIGHT YEARS!

  13. We’ll try to do the next one in under 8 years.

  14. Looking forward to the Mosaic box , his 80s Sextett and Air classics been out of print for far to long.
    Threadgill I thought had quit recording entirely he seemed disenchanted with record companies a few years ago, what does Seth think about this ?

  15. Well I wouldn’t want to speak for Henry, but I will comment from discussions I have had with other artists on this point. There is no inherent evil in the record business or record labels. It is a matter of ability, time and interest. If an artist has the ability to distribute their music effectively such that it reaches their audience then indeed they may not be reliant on a record label to serve this function. In order to do this effectively, if their audience is larger than the group of people who may come hear them perform on any given night, there is time involved. Time that many artists would prefer to dedicate to their playing and composing. Now if indeed their is an ability and time available to effectively be their own record label and they are interested in starting a new business, because their careers are indeed a business, then acting as their own label can be very rewarding. Look at the wonderful work that Tim Berne has done with Screwgun or John Zorn has done with Tzadik.

    To become disenchanted with record companies is just to have not worked with a group that you are comfortable with or have trust in. Rarely, though should that result in an artist losing an interest in documenting their work.

  16. I am not as familiar with Henry Threadgill as my alternate universe self who is a fucking scholar at Henry Threadgill, he will slaughter your ears with talk of Air Lore and how Threadgill’s flute playing is like climbing the ladder to heaven and experiencing a heart attack in transit.

    I am not this probably-even-handsomer version of myself, but I listened to the two sample tracks and immediately applied the Ralph J. Gleason notes for Bitches Brew: “there is so much to say about this music.” Ordering a copy, letting the light in.

  17. The disenchantment I refer to is in a clip on youtube I saw on Zooid at an jazz festival a few years back, Threadgill’s comments about record companies and small labels being redundant.

    Some great music he wrote for the Society Situation has gone unrecorded too, he just was not satisfied by what the companies could or should have given him.

    Im glad he chnaged his mind but 8 years is a long gap.

  18. thanks for posting these great tracks. henry threadgill is one of the planet’s greatest living composers. No matter what band he is directing, whether Air, Sextett, Very Very Circus, Make a Move and now Zooid, the common thread is extraordinary composition generating extremely interesting and individualized improvisation–and of course, true to the nature of the AACM, a blur on the line between composition and improvisation.

    He never ceases to amaze me. Also, his music embodies the entire musical history of the African origined people in America known as black or african american. “i thought i heard buddy bolden say” is right here in “after some time” that punchy second line rhythm, tuba AND bass. what a joyful sound!

  19. Great article – got the album last night last night from Amazon and its been on constantly since

  20. That’s great, Bob. You might be pleased to hear that volume II is only weeks away from appearing…

  21. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bx1mYBqod_4


    Exhibits A and B of The Best Thing I Heard All Summer above…Henry Threadgill’s Zooid at the Chicago Jazz Festival.

    Even as a casual (but decade-spanning…as in I’ve listened to Threadgill’s various work over several decades, not that *I’ve* listened for decades) fan, I still wasn’t prepared for this.

    Zooid made you feel like you were traveling omnidirectionally at all times, but without moving. It was some sort of swimming, swarming organism in which each instrument seemed to travel by its own logic, while still providing the needed momentum for the organism as a whole. It was like a chamber orchestra playing four interlocking pieces simultaneously, while a snappin’ drum beat held it all together. It was the type of movement I think of when I think of electrons swarming around a proton, or schools of fishes unexpecting zig-zagging in the middle of open water for no apparent reason. And it fucking SWINGS, too!

    The most interesting thing was, as you can see in these clips, Threadgill hardly plays at all! It’s not that I dislike his playing, obviously, but I love that he created this machine, and he spends most of the show just sitting on a stool, watching the machine hum along, only adding little zags of alto or flute firepower as architectural filigrees. (These clips are only highlights of the whole performance, taped mostly when Threadgill was playing…larger swaths of the night’s music saw Mr. Threadgill just sitting and listening/waiting.

    It’s kind of like Anthony Braxton, who has been in plain sight all these years but who seems to have grown exponentially in talent and vision in the last 10-15 years, absorbing and refracting ideas at an unimaginable rate. If we’re still here as a society in 30 years, I imagine this will be the music they’ll talk about that changed the paradigm.

    With Zooid,it seems like Threadgill has created something almost alien, a music beyond comprehension. Sometimes it seems that most new music is little more than a music built with previously-used building blocks (even if said blocks are arranged cleverly). I’ve missed a lot of the interim construction work, but it looks like Henry Threadgill has created something utterly new, utterly unprecedented (even within his own catalogue), a music that’s traveled as far down a certain newly-discovered music path as anyone yet alive has trod.

    Man, that is exciting.

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