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Sunday, June 17, 2018

Henry Threadgill - Double Up Plus and 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg

Double Up Plays Double Up Plus (Pi Recordings, 2018) ****½


By Paul Acquaro

Composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill's previous album, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, with the first incarnation of the Double Up ensemble, was dedicated to Lawrence "Butch" Morris' conduction method, and was given a thorough review by Lee Rice Epstein in 2016. Noting the reintroduction of the piano to Threadgill's compositions, as well as his non-performing role, Epstein wrote:
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 ... 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.
A few weeks ago, the saxophonist and composer released two new recordings, one with the Double Up ensemble, where again he assumes the role of composer and conductor, and the other, where he is part of the group and re-engages with Ellman. However, on the Double Up ensemble here, Threadgill has doubled down on the pianos by adding a third. The group is David Bryant – piano, Luis Perdomo – piano, and David Virelles – piano and harmonium. Not on piano is Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone, Roman Filiu – alto saxophone, alto flute, Christopher Hoffman – cello, Jose Davila – tuba, and finally Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion.

The rich panoply of instruments gives Threadgill many choices to use in his compositions and he mixes the voices well, but this recording is really all about the piano - all three of them - and it is the first sound one hears on the album. On the opening "Game is Up," each piano introduce a distinct strand of  interlocking parts, as the other other musicians slowly filter in. The composition feels somewhat fragmentary and complex as seemingly incomplete melodic ideas appear and then move on, that is until Davila introduces a punchy bass line towards the final moments of the track. Then, a delicious interplay of strings and low brass ensues, and the kinetic crisscrossing strings are buoyed by the big brassy bass lines.

‘Clear and Distinct from the Other’ certainly starts differently than the previous tune. A snippet of sparse melody from a single piano is quickly overtaken by woodwind and cello. A slowly building but fractured melody emerges in their interweaving. The different snippets connect loosely until the brass again introduces a punchy theme, and the modern classical veers into lively modern jazz.

Double Up Plays Double Up Plus is a substantial album but in a very approachable way . It is both dedicated to Threadgill's own musical systems but also organic in its expression. As Virelles states, “it always feels like the blues, funky and soulful.”


14 or 15 Kestra: Agg - Dirt... And More Dirt (Pi Recordings, 2018) *****



On the twin release - fraternal, not identical in this case - Threadgill’s new 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg group's Dirt... And More Dirt, we find the composer also playing along with a large ensemble (14 or 15 musicians), which includes many of the his Zooid and Double Up compatriots like guitarist Liberty Ellman, keyboardist Virelles whose Harmonium playing is a defining sound, and saxophonist Roman Filiu (the whole list of musicians from each group is below). The sound, as you can imagine is full, varied, and truly exciting.

The recording was Inspired by the conceptual art installation “The New York Earth Room” by Walter de Maria at The Dia Art Foundation. Tucked into some prime NYC real estate, the 250 cubic yards of earth in a 3600 square foot space has been on view since 1980 in lower Manhattan. In addition, the osseous clay sculptures of Stephen De Staebler served as inspiration - and when listening to the music, it’s not hard to imagine digging through the ground and unearthing the things from the past, and re-casting them new. The music on Dirt and More Dirt carries that distinction of sounding both thoroughly forward thinking with its angular and twisting themes and complex harmonies, but at the same deeply rooted in musical tradition.

The first track, 'Dirt Part I' begins with Thomas Morgan’s bowed bass and some loosely related percussion. It’s a soft beginning, but as the bowing is replaced by deliberate plucking, the tempo picks up a bit and ground is laid for the entrance of the accordion like harmonium (pump organ), and when the tuba and guitar enter, the sound pallet begins opening up in a most welcoming - though unusual - manner. Ellman delivers a slightly jumpy intervallic solo over a swelling group sound. A series of tracks, parts II through VI follow, each with slightly different theme. 'Part II' is under a minute, and features the pianos of Bryan and Virelles, ‘Part III’ finds the saxophone front and center with the tuba/guitar/piano/drums playing a fine pulsating rhythm, rapidly turning up the heat and cooking up a fine modern jazz tune, only to change entirely by the time the avant-garde ‘Part IV’ rolls around.

“And More Dirt - Part I” kicks off the second suite of tracks. While not entirely different than the first suite, feels a bit more fluid - or rather in the dirt theme - like a fruit bearing potting soil, rich in nutrients and moist to the touch. Christopher Hoffman’s cello and at least one of the ace trombonists are featured in tandem, along with a solid piano driven back up. The suite ends on ‘Part IV’, which begins as a haunting duet between sax and piano, before the whole group enters with an orchestral flourish that simultaneous evokes a feeling of leaving and of something yet to come.

Both of these albums took me several listens to really hear. So, let the complex and unusual harmonies wash over you, be carried away on the eddying confluences of rhythm, and indulge in the piano interplay and the frolicking of the tuba and guitar. Threadgill, now in his mid-70s, has been delivering absolute masterworks, and it's nice to think of these these two as part of a continuing series.



Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus
  • Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone
  • Roman Filiu – alto saxophone, alto flute
  • Christopher Hoffman – cello
  • Jose Davila – tuba
  • David Bryant – piano
  • Luis Perdomo – piano
  • David Virelles – piano, harmonium
  • Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion

Dirt... And More Dirt
  • Henry Threadgill – alto saxophone, flute, bass flute
  • Liberty Ellman – guitar
  • Christopher Hoffman – cello
  • Jose Davila – tuba
  • Jacob Garchik – trombone
  • Ben Gerstein – trombone
  • Jonathan Finlayson – Bb trumpet, F trumpet
  • Stephanie Richards – Bb trumpet
  • Roman Filiu – alto saxophone, alto flute
  • Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone
  • David Bryant – piano
  • David Virelles – piano, harmonium
  • Thomas Morgan – bass
  • Elliott Humberto Kavee – drums, percussion
  • Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion

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