Destination: Out is thrilled to present this amazing guest post by Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus. This is the first in what we hope will become an occasional feature – jazz musicians on their favorite music. Enjoy!
THEME FROM THOMAS COLE
SILVER AND GOLD BABY, SILVER AND GOLD
You Know the Number
RCA-Novus : 1986
HT, also sax; Rasul Sadik, trumpet; Frank Lacy, trombone; Fred Hopkins, bass; Diedre Murray, cello; Reggie Nicholson and Pheeroan akLaff, drums.
Recorded October 12 and 13, 1986.
Anybody else remember this glossy print ad campaign that featured Henry Threadgill?
Over the years, Madison Avenue hasn’t called on many jazz musicians to promote luxury items. Dewar’s tapped Threadgill in the late 1980s, during which time he had major recording contracts (first RCA-Novus, then Columbia), critical acclaim (he won Best Composer in the Downbeat critic’s poll every year from 1988 to 1991), and even a celebrity marriage (with Cassandra Wilson, since terminated).
That level of hubbub subsided pretty quickly, but he’s kept going strong. Every couple of years he shows up with an interesting new band. He is currently recording for Pi.
Reid, Dave and I all checked out various Threadgill discs when young. We have talked to many “straight-ahead” jazz musicians who have never heard a note of Threadgill, which is unfortunate for them since he is one of the music’s important resources. There’s at least one great track on every Threadgill record we’ve heard.
Here are two tracks from a wonderful record made almost exactly 20 years ago. It’s extremely out-of-print and unlikely to be reissued any time soon. To demonstrate why Threadgill is an important resource, I have gotten fairly technical in my description of these performances. (Hopefully non-musicians will not find it unfriendly.) If more musicians had paid attention 20 years ago, jazz today might be quite different. There was a glossy print ad campaign featuring a luxury item and a jazz musician last year too:
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“Theme from Thomas Cole” is in two sections. The first (“A”) is homophonic and vaguely “classical” sounding with a clear tonic of F# minor.Â The second (“B”) is a rare example of successful counterpoint in jazz. All the musicians play the parts cleanly, without any raggedness or smudging. However, against either A or B, there is almost always a soloist who is blowing ragged lines against the pure texture. This dichotomy — clean band, dirty soloist — goes back to the dawn of jazz and exists in any decent blues performance. Threadgill’s playing in particular is quite irrational. It is impressive that a man can write such elegant music and then deface it so casually.
The Sextett had two drummers. Notice that in the first “A” there is only a multitude of cymbals (no drums) and that in “B” each drummer is assigned one of the lines of counterpoint. It is not an easy tempo but it never drags — in fact, “Theme from Thomas Cole” would be a little too long if the drummers weren’t so enthusiastic; Pheeroan akLaff was an important asset to Threadgill. He replaced the late Steve McCall in Air and turns in a great performance with Very Very Circus on Makin’ A Move.
The last time through “A,” Threadgill varies his pecking “dee-dee-dee-dee” figure for the first time (at 5:45). This tiny moment of entropy presages the brief horn calamity that starts the coda. A sonorous C#7 is eventually agreed on except in the bass: Fred Hopkins swoops down to pound on his low F#. This moment (a prolonged V dominant over i) is found in any piece of Beethoven but hardly ever appears in jazz. The tension is gratefully released in a satisfying blare of pure F# minor.
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After a slithering microtonal Hopkins introduction, “Silver and Gold Baby, Silver and Gold” reveals itself to be a mysterious dirge in the Ellington tradition. Diedre Murray is unnervingly scored at the top of her instrument. The weird staccato note in the melody sounds like a mistake, but it is exactly the same on the reprise. At about a minute into the track, Threadgill gets a few bars of Johnny Hodges-like statement, and you can almost hear the words “Silver and Gold, Baby! Silver and Gold…” The tune keeps twisting along. It’s quite a long form, probably at least 32 bars with no repeats.
The second chorus features an abstract Threadgill solo. The accompaniment of Murray and Hopkins (who switches between arco and pizzicato effectively) marks the tune’s harmony but doesn’t lock up anything like a piano player would. Threadgill’s last two impassioned notes — almost an operatic appoggiatura — ties up his solo perfectly (4:07). The third chorus reprises the tune with Murray an octave down, although the band makes it only halfway through before getting stuck on a dolorous vamp for Threadgill to preach over.
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Here is an article by Greg Sandow that has a lot of interesting information about Threadgill’s background
Here is a Threadgill discography.
Here is more on painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848).
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Read much more from Mr. Iverson and his confreres at the Bad Plus’ internet home: Do The Math.