Twenty Years Ago

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!

Henry Threadgill
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.

Sometimes during rehearsal in the Bad Plus, one of us says to the other two, “This part is like Threadgill.” As I wrote on Do the Math:

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. 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.

Category guest posts, Henry Threadgill

10 Responses to Twenty Years Ago

  1. Hey! Great stuff from one of Threadgill’s that I missed (I love easily slip into another world, featuring Aisha Putli, also love Rag Bush and All)– excellent structural analysis too; Threadgill is such an inspiring composer/arranger.

    Ethan Iverson, if you read these comments, perhaps you can clear up a mystery: I recently worked on a project (led by Chris Jonas, formerly with Cecil T) involving a couple of the musicians from Birth. Somehow we were talking in the studio about Heernt which led to Happy Apple which led to speculation that The Bad Plus’s drummer, David King (who is in something like 17 different bands) must have been cloned, or he’s a holographic projection, or an android. Perhaps you’d care to comment?

    peter b

  2. Well, hell, I guess I’ll mention again, as I did in response to that Hemphill post a while back that, when I was a teenager, I went to a workshop the two of them did at John Carter’s Wind College, and, unlike Hemphill’s part, I actually remember something about what Threadgill did, so here goes: first he asked something along the lines of “What do you you want to get out of this,” eliciting mainly cheerful variations on “Whatever.” Then he went into something about getting away from repeated song structures. I also remember him saying “Leonard Feather bums me out,” at some point.

    Then he passed out a piece that consisted of a chord progression that we were supposed to improvise over as a group, adding more instruments with each repetition. In retrospect I think what he had in mind was sort of a riff-based approach, but this wasn’t clear to me at the time, and, anyway, I was trying to learn to play through changes, so that’s what I did. I remember him asking me, “You hear the intervals he’s playing?” and I shrugged and said, “Yeah.” I think the result was more cacophonous than what he had in mind, but the non-playing atendees applauded enthusiastically.

    I remember being very moved by the concert afterward, though, honestly, I’m not that nuts about the records I happen to have (“Easily Slip” and an obscure Air album whose title I don’t remember; the cover is a baboon showing his butt). I’ve liked the 2 Air Lore tracks I’ve heard OK, and I vaguely remember enjoying an Aklaff-era Air track and a Very Very Circus track. I remember entertaining idle fantasies about Rollins playing in one of these groups.

    And, yes, I do remember the ad, now that you mention it.

  3. …oh, yeah, and the other thing was something about using parades to promote your music, and a recommendation that participants write the AACM for more info, but I don’t remember if that was for Hemp or Thread.

  4. I totally remember that ad! The Dewar’s Profile series ran in various glossy mags such as The New Yorker in the
    60s/70s to 80s, I think, and had various notables giving their opinions on life, the arts, their work,etc., capped by their drink of choice (Dewar’s, of course). Henry Threadgill’s profile had a tagline like “Dewar’s, AFTER the gig.” I clipped it out and hung it by the Jazz LPs at WCSB, the radio station at Cleveland State University (see website link) when I was a programmer there in the 80s.
    Mr. Threadgill brought the Sextett to town to do a show at a fairly intimate venue about that time–very enjoyable.

  5. I also rememeber that Threadgill ad. It came out when I was first getting interested in jazz. It led me to Threadgill’s music, and Air in particular, even though they were done by the time of that ad campaign. Air Lore is one of my all-time favorite jazz albums.

    Thanks, Dewar’s, and thanks for the memory jog.

  6. Henry Threadgrill is one of my favourite, and i’m frightend by the counterpoint shown inâ??Theme from Thomas Coleâ?

  7. informative piece by Iverson thanks, I had no idea about the Dewars ad, I didnt even know you could drink a Dewars ! surprised Henry would be part of such an endorsement, but Mr Threadgill is a sax/composer/arranger genius, poorly served by record labels , much of the 80’s Sextett stuff has been outta print for too long, You know the Number is the probably the most straight jazz album he has made , why more jazz musicians have not listened I cant answer, but everyone should also hear : –
    Rag, Bush and All
    Just the Fact and Pass the Bucket
    When was That
    Air classic trio Air Lore, Live Air, Air Mail

  8. I got turned on to Threadgill when I was grabbing my getback from someone that borrowed (read:stole) some of my Ellington. I grabbed Just the Facts and You Know the Number and got the better deal. Those albums pushed me back into Air and look forward to everyone of his releases. They were the albums that made me hear the continuity of whatever “jazz” is while simultaneously removing the walls I had around music called ‘Jazz” if that makes sense. I could replace the Ellington but if I didn’t get the Sextett then I wouldn’t be able to get it now. When I did replace the Ellington, I heard it with a new ear to composition and musical logic but not just jazz, all music. It is true many young musicians have not heard this stuff, but where would they? It is shameful that so much beautiful music discussed on this site, like Air and the Sextett will not see the light of day again. Has anyone heard the recently released album on Hardedge or the album that was supposed to be out in June of 06?
    Thank you for this site and keep up the great work!!! It is a thrill to browse and learn about this music I’ve missed.

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