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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up - Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi, 2016) ****½

Pardon me while I nerd-out on Threadgill here. Because there’s a lot here to dig into, and I really want to take my time with this one.

Threadgill began Old Locks and Irregular Verbs as a tribute to the great innovator Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris. Regular readers of this blog likely don’t need a review of conduction, and far better writers have summed up the approach, so I’m not going to get into it here. But Threadgill has tackled his ode to conduction in a suitably interesting way, by combining Morris’s approach with his own unique take on collaboration and democratic improvisation.

The band, Ensemble Double Up, is a new one, created for this tribute’s debut. It’s a mix of Threadgill regulars and newer voices, with Jason Moran and David Virelles on piano, Roman Filiu and Curtis Macdonald on alto, Chris Hoffman and Jose Davila reprising their Zooid spots on cello and tuba, respectively, and Craig Weinrib on drums, taking over for Elliot Humberto Kavee, who had performed on every Threadgill recording for the past 15 years. I had to look this up, just to be sure about it, but it’s been 20 years since Henry Threadgill last included piano on an album. That was “Noisy Flowers,” with Myra Melford and a quartet of guitarists, from Makin’ a Move, the last album to feature Very Very Circus.

I kept going back into Threadgill’s discography because there are very few precedents Old Locks in his catalog. Similar to last year’s In For a Penny, In For a Pound, Threadgill’s Ensemble Double Up debut is a thrilling shakeup of his compositional language, which has admittedly been in a state of near-constant evolution for decades. If it was strange to be missing Stomu Takeishi’s bass on last year’s Zooid double-album, it’s even stranger to have a new album without Threadgill’s flute or Liberty Ellman’s guitar. This type of reformatting is, perhaps, the best possible way to pay tribute to Morris, whose own conduction technique remained an ever-moving target, the sounds, sizes, and shapes of his groups always shifting.

Of course, Threadgill has an identifiable sound, one that’s only slightly less identifiable coming from Filiu and Macdonald, instead of Threadgill’s own horn. The two have an overall warmer tone, less clipped than Threadgill’s own, though it’s remarkable to hear them so completely subsume their more lyrical styles to play in his intervallic realm.

Old Locks is divided into four fairly neat parts. “Part 1” opens with Moran and Virelles in a playful duet that references Threadgill’s blues-inspired interlocking phrases. The rest of the band drops in with a brief statement of the melody. On first listen, “Part 1” seemed to play it fairly straight for the first 10 or so minutes, with the members of the band each taking their turn at a measured solo, over the relatively fluid rhythm section. Davila takes the first full solo, over the rhythm quartet of Virelles, Moran, Hoffman, and Weinrib. As evidenced on his Zooid appearances, Davila really clicks with Threadgill’s music. He shifts pretty effortlessly from his solo into taking a spot in the rhythm section, playing off Hoffman in a subtle duet, that snakes under Filiu and Macdonald’s solos. But, it’s really the last 5 minutes of this section where the group begins fragmenting into duos and trios that excitedly clash against each other. I never caught this group live, but I suspect this was a fierce run in any performance. Both Moran and Virelles really let loose, demonstrating their immense prowess and sensitive improvisatory abilities.

“Part 2” features some curious new-music interpolations, which last about a minute. These seemed more strictly composed, but the group quickly drops out for a Weinrib solo. For anyone curious about the differences between Ensemble Double Up and Zooid, start here. Weinrib brings such a new voice to Threadgill’s work, it’s as fresh as when Kavee first took over. His crisp, percussive solo takes up the remainder of “Part 2,” leading right into a stunner of a solo from Hoffman, opening “Part 3.” Hoffman was such a fantastic addition to Zooid, he really elevated the band and was a highlight of In For a Penny, and he does not disappoint here. He layers a plaintive lyricism over his solo this time around, prefacing the elegiac shift to come in “Part 4.”

Moran and Virelles, both with deep ties to Threadgill, bear a strangely heavy burden of reintroducing piano to Threadgill’s discography. And their solos throughout show a deep affinity for Threadgill’s tonal and rhythmic playgrounds. “Part 3” owes maybe the most obvious debt to Morris’s legacy, with its fierce, clashing conduction, and it’s a showcase for both Moran and Virelles. Virelles is one of my personal favorites, right now, and I really love the opportunity of hearing him in this larger band. His groups have a pretty loose sound, already, but he seemed to relax into this in a new way. “Part 4,” as I mentioned, is a flat-out gorgeous elegy, with brighter piano and a rather loving funereal dirge on the back end. The final statement is both beautiful and shocking, a reminder of just how long it’s been since Threadgill’s recorded something so emotionally raw, leaving me, at least, to wonder just how the man himself will be memorialized, when his time does come.

Available at Downtown Music Gallery and Instant Jazz.


Colin Green said...

A very good album. I enjoyed the review.

For anyone interested in the mechanics of Conduction (which you don't need to know to appreciate the music) there's the following document:;jsessionid=A1DFEFF77D6BA9C41D7D8452CCB348F5?sequence=1

It's lengthy, and I suggest focusing on Chapter 4 (67ff.).

Lee said...

Thanks for the link, Colin. There are also loads of YouTube clips of Morris conducting, which are fantastic to watch.