Henry Threadgill: An Iconoclast's Moves

Henry Threadgill: An Iconoclast's Moves

by Dan Ouellette
Copyright © 1998 Dan Ouellette

"You kidding, it's out?" exclaims Henry Threadgill when informed that the Flutistry CD by Flute Force Four, the flute quartet he co-pilots with James Newton, has finally been released on Black Saint. "That's great news. I'd love to see what it looks like. That's a lot of hard music, and we had to play it live first at the Verona festival in Italy. Now, when was that, 1990?"

Sitting in the passenger seat of my Volkswagen bug, Threadgill reminisces about the recording session: the midnight-to-dawn rehearsal in the basement of an Italian hotel, the formidable challenge facing new quartet member Melecio Magdaluyo brought in at the eleventh hour for the date, the foursome's enthusiasm for the final takes. While we're navigating through the maze of one-way and no-left-turn streets in downtown Oakland en route to a catfish lunch at a waterfront restaurant, I ask the 53-year-old iconoclastic composer/bandleader if the seven-year wait for the release of the disc has been frustrating. "No, you just got to let those things go unless you want to punish yourself," he replies with the poise that only a veteran jazz musician who has been raked over the coals by recording industry bigwigs could possess. "It doesn't usually take this long, but you have to understand that these kinds of things are going to happen. You're not in control."

No kidding. The maverick maestro, in town for a five-night engagement with his Make a Move band at Yoshi's jazz club, recently received the news that Sony/Columbia pulled the plug on his contract after three brilliant, but slow- selling CDs - Carry the Day, Makin' a Move and Where's Your Cup? In 1995 when the major label signed Threadgill, prominent trade magazines such as Down Beat, Jazziz and Musician covered the event as a coup for adventurous, free-thinking music. Steve Berkowitz, at the time Columbia's A&R rep, was quoted as saying that the label was sincere in wanting Henry to be Henry. All the feature articles on the singular Threadgill - dubbed by critics as the champion of the unorthodox, the quintessential outsider, outspoken nonconformist, a virtual genre unto himself and one of America's best-kept cultural secrets - celebrated the signing yet also wondered how long the experiment would last. As it turned out, not long.

"People in high places at the label should have spoken up," says Threadgill, with an angry razor edge in his voice. "They knew who I was. This was no fishing expedition. They knew they couldn't suggest to me that I do a Gershwin album. The label got a whole lot of attention for signing me, but I believe they had already made a decision that the deal was dead. When I signed, the divorce papers were already being drafted. If you've been around as long as I have, you know not to get your expectations up too high. They cut heads off at record companies, you know, from presidents all the way down the ladder to secretaries and janitors. When I discovered that, I said, wait a minute, Henry, don't be trippin.' Walkin' in the door under the title of artist doesn't protect you." He pauses, then grins. "It's a funny business."

Threadgill should know. He's been a lifer in striving for musical originality and artistic integrity - two callings more often than not at odds with the commercial goals of the record industry.

Born in Chicago in 1944, Threadgill grew up with a diet of diverse music, including Mexican, gospel, European folk and classical. He was playing boogie woogie piano by the age of six and took up the saxophone in high school. One of his first professional jobs as a musician was playing gospel with traveling church evangelists. He gigged in blues groups, marching bands and ethnic music ensembles playing polka and mariachi. He studied clarinet, piano and composition at the American Conservatory of Music and was a key figure in the Chicago-based AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) movement of radical jazz in the '60s. In 1972, he founded the trad-to-free trio AIR with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall (the group was originally formed to bring new life to a batch of Scott Joplin tunes) and re- envisioned the group as New Air in 1982 with Pheeroan AkLaff and later Andrew Cyrille doing the drumming chores.

Also during the '80s, Threadgill began to explore more unusual ensemble configurations to give voice to his increasingly complex and wonderfully strange compositions. He formed X-75, which included four bassists, four reeds and a vocalist, and his Sextett (actually a septet) with two drummers and cellist Diedre Murray. Then came his Very Very Circus ensemble full of tubas, trombones and guitars and, most recently, his Make a Move band. This latest Threadgill group to be documented on disc may be relatively tame instrument-wise (the leader on alto saxophone and flute, Brandon Ross on electric and classical guitars, Tony Cedras on accordion and harmonium, Stomu Takeishi on 5-string fretless bass and J. T. Lewis on drums), but the Make a Move project displays plenty of Threadgill's penchant for adventure from a compositional point of view. In other words, don't expect to hear any of the seven classical, world and folk-infused tracks from Where's Your Cup?, Threadgill's 1997 Columbia swan song, on a mainstream jazz radio station anytime soon.

On that disc, Threadgill shatters the calm and jars the status quo. Attentive listening is required as he and and his crew avoid predictable head-solo-head jazz formulas in favor of charting musical journeys that are at once brimming with joy and eerily unsettling. There are accordion drones, whimsical helixing saxophone and guitar lines, tumultuous drumming, anguished sax screams, lyrical tango-meets-reggae dances. Tempos accelerate, meters shift, timbres bloom and dissolve. While Threadgill eschews the spotlight in lieu of letting his simpatico band interpret his compositions, the most gripping moment on the CD arrives when he leads his cohorts out onto the serated edge with lacerating alto saxophone exhalations.

Threadgill music is compelling, even when he and his collaborators are playing instruments as seemingly unthreatening as flutes. Case in point: Flutistry. The CD is a triumphant feast of flutes, ranging from piccolo flute to bass flute, all of which color the magical soundscapes. The recording features two of Threadgill's captivatingly lyrical, jarringly harsh, playfully sweeping and ebulliently beautiful compositions. The flute quartet on "T.B.A." sounds like a flock of birds twittering, chirping and warbling, and his "Luap Nosebor" (Paul Robeson spelled backwards), inspired by watching parakeets in a zoo, also takes wing with flute soars and swoops.

In the liner notes of his last pre-Columbia CD, Song Out of My Tree, recorded in 1993 and released the following year by Black Saint, Threadgill set out to explain his latest work of art. He opened with a rambling discourse, then finally crystallized his thoughts in what proved to be a poignant statement on the state of jazz: "The underlying gravity is about Song. Very very strong sense of Song. Not song as an excuse to do something else or a pale platform for dead technique . . . This recording is not an attempt to be retro or stylistic in any certain way." Threadgill's manifesto? Move over young lions, intent on preserving a jazz canon, and make way for a composer revitalizing jazz with a spirit of border-busting adventurism.

Song Out of My Tree is a forward-looking, freedom-loving collection of deeply personal, vibrantly spiritual songs. Only two of the five pieces include a drummer while Threadgill himself, content to don the composer's hat and set aside his sax momentarily, bows out of two of the numbers. He experiments with unusual sonic textures, composing for alto and soprano guitars in two pieces (one of which features Ted Daniels on eerie-sounding hunting horns) and on another brilliantly meshing the sounds of two cellos, accordion and harpsichord together.

The tunes ebb and flow with unfolding melodies as well as stretches of quiet instrumentation followed by torrential downpours of notes. "Gateway" undergoes melodic twists and turns and at one juncture erupts into a charged free-for- all where all the instruments speak their languages simultaneously. The bird- like flittering and nibbling by the three guitarists on "Over the River Club" leads to a frenzy of dissonant piano jabs by Myra Melford. The superb "Grief" is a swirling, scratching, wailing descent into the depths of anguish. Only the title tune, with its soulful organ flourishes by Amina Claudine Myers, bluesy guitar lines by Ed Cherry and an esctastically ragged alto solo by Threadgill, consistently maintains a swing and groove. Otherwise, it's brave new territory with surprises around every corner.

"When I write music, I want something powerful to come at people," says Threadgill, sipping a glass of chardonnay and waiting for his catfish plate to arrive. "And it don't have to fit no categories. How can you deal with a broad range of thoughts and emotions if you stay locked into one road? So I open up my music completely. Keep it wide open. I like the idea of engaging the listener by making music that's not passive. I like playing for people who have a broad diet. Otherwise, it's like someone who only eats hot dogs. I think it's ridiculous that people discriminate against a broad spectrum of music, stuff like opera, punk rock, country."

Feisty and opinionated, Threadgill talks with a strident exuberance. And he loves to tell stories, like the one about getting schooled in country music. "I discovered something when I was really young. I had to give myself a whuppin.' I didn't like country and western music, but I found myself in the army stationed in Kansas where there was nothin' but country music, which was called hillbilly back then. Can you imagine that? It was like being put in jail. Every station on the radio, day and night, every bar, every jukebox. Country and western." He laughs then sings a warbly, sing-songy Hank Williams imitation that sounds more like Jimmy Scott: "Did you ever lose a will to live?"

Threadgill explains that he ended up liking country once he stopped fighting the music. "I can dislike something, but I've got to give it a chance. I can't close the door completely. Otherwise I shut out something that may be valuable for my own music. I can never turn off something because as a composer and artist I've chosen to deal with sound. I can't put limitations on myself. It was the same way with opera. I didn't like it. But at one point opera registered with me and the heavens opened up. Because I had been limiting myself, look what I was missing. I had to kill my limitations."

One of the major criticisms of Threadgill's music is that it is too inaccessible to listeners who want tunes that are safe, polite and palatable. It's branded commercially unviable and too challenging for the mainstream. What's his response to that viewpoint? Threadgill narrows his eyes and bristles. Once again, the conversation turns to the faceless decisionmakers of the recording industry. "In America, record companies and radio stations disrespect the faith and intelligence of the audience to be interested in music that doesn't sound the same as everything else. They think the audience is stupid. I think the audience is hungry for music that stretches. I've seen it when I play shows. I've had people come up to me and say they were surprised by how much they enjoyed my music because they had heard so many negative things about it. That's what I try to accomplish as an artist: engage people to listen and at least give the music a chance."

Several years ago Threadgill loaded his Very Very Circus ensemble into a bus and did a cross-country tour. Along the way, the bus stopped in small towns and performed free sets of Threadgill's exacting music in town squares and parks. "You grab people's attention by doing something as audacious as that," he explains. "People were curious. They just stood there waiting to see what would happen next. A crowd draws a crowd, so before we knew it we attracted large audiences. And people stayed. Now that's what I was hoping for. They accepted the challenge without even knowing they were being challenged. They were curious enough to check out a style of music they wouldn't have dared to listen to. We just threw it on the table for them. No tickets. No previews. No reviews. Just, all of a sudden, food on the table, which they could taste without feeling threatened. And the people there got engaged. I'm sure not everyone liked it, but some digested it while hopefully others went away feeling a little less scared to listen to something different."

As a composer, Threadgill rarely finds his inspiration by listening to music. He's often informed by theater or literature. Sometimes music flows to him by looking at the way light shines through clouds. What's he been feeding himself on these days? He shrugs his shoulders and curtly says, "Oh, science manuals, the tradition of frogs around the world, butt jokes."

Anything else? "Right now, poetry, lots of poetry. Derek Walcott, Arab poets, a Paris poet, a whole stack of books by poets from India. But it won't end there. It always gets broader than that. But that's how it works with me. Right now I'm not composing. I'm taking in information. I'm digesting. I don't know how it works, but I don't sit down and create. I'm like a farmer. I have to work the field before it's ready to produce. All this information I'm gathering inside me is like fuel so that when I do write it all comes out at once. I'll write three or four compositions at the same time - music for string quartet, orchestra, Make a Move, pipe organ - the same way I'll read six or seven books at the same time."

Nearly four years ago, Threadgill decided to move to India where he now lives over half the year with his wife and one-year-old daughter in a large Portugese mansion far out in the countryside. When he's retreated to India, he's almost impossible to reach. He has no telephone. He carries on correspondence with bookers via a fax machine in town. Living in India has been a major factor in allowing Threadgill to stretch as a composer. "I don't have to deal with information I don't want coming into my environment. I know what the telephone, television and the mailbox have done to our lives. It takes awhile to get away from all that, but once you do, you start to hear things inside your head that you could have never heard otherwise. That's why I had to get out of the city. There were things inside me that I couldn't get out."

Those sounds inside his head play an important role in Threadgill's use of unusual combinations of instruments - tubas, french horns, harmonium, violins. "It's like a DNA game. I have to take the sound apart and figure it out."

Does he listen to music in India? Some, although Threadgill's not forthcoming about what's in his collection there. What about his equipment? He laughs. "Just a CD player and a tape deck. You know, musicians have the worst sound systems in the world. I'm just happy that the stuff I have works, because half the time it doesn't. I don't have to hear the fine aspects of the music. I just need to hear it and get it to engage me. That's all."

Is he excited about the prospects of any younger jazz musicians? Threadgill pauses, then says he's actually been waiting for some truly revolutionary breakthrough in the music. "I'd love to see a group of kids working with radical ideas, but I don't see it. There are some individuals that I'm impressed by, but no movement, no avant garde, nothing that I could latch onto and learn from." Threadgill does admire the nerve and audacity of Steve Coleman, even though he's not big on everything the saxophonist has produced. "But Steve's matured so much in the last few years. Before it seemed like he was playing from his head. Something organic has happened in his life. He's become a whole person in his music."

Threadgill is also a James Carter fan, though he worries that too much is being made of his extraordinary technical prowess on the saxophone. "That's all surface qualification. Those things mean nothing to me. But the jazz world makes a big deal about technique because of the Marsalis influence. But to me, technique ain't nothin.' I like James because James likes music."

In returning to the topic of his own new projects, Threadgill is forced to take a few more whacks at the record industry. He's frank in his criticisms of major labels not having a strong artistic vision. At one point in our conversation, he becomes so bluntly bold in his assertions that our waiter comes over to our table and asks if everything is all right with the food. Threadgill is irked that he didn't hear about his contract termination until after he returned from India with a new Make a Move project ready to rehearse. He admits to being disappointed. "I wasn't hurt, but I was disspirited. Funny thing is, if you came up to me and asked me to make a record, I wouldn't do it. I couldn't do it. I might be tempted because of the money, but recordings just flow out of me without being planned. That's what happened with this new material, which will probably never get recorded now."

Another Threadgill project that may never be documented on disc is his 21-piece Society Situation dance band. Based on how he describes it, that orchestra has the potential to make his most "accessible" recording since his delightfully quirky Too Much Sugar For a Dime. That CD was produced by the leader and bassist Bill Laswell and released in 1993 on Laswell's Axiom label distributed by Island (the record company even packaged a promo CD with made- for-radio edits of two of the tunes). Threadgill's big band includes strings (three cellos, three violins), brass (tubas and trombones), Brandon Ross on guitar, Tony Cedras on accordion, a few vocalists and a large percussion section. The group used to play at SOBs in New York, but now performs almost exclusively in Europe. In spring of 1998 it was scheduled as one of the opening attractions at the coming June's New York Texaco Jazz Festival.

"The young people there go crazy for it," Threadgill says with a satisfied smile on his face. "It's the killingest thing. We play my compositions for the most part. It's music to dance to, funky stuff and everything, but there ain't no formulas. We cover everything." He says that he wanted to record the group for Columbia, but was told the cost was too prohibitive. "They chickened out. They dropped the ball on that one. But recording that band isn't as important to me as its live life." He pauses, takes a drag on a cigarette, swigs down some wine and says, "Look, record companies are not that damn important to me. I'm telling you, I wouldn't be disappointed if I didn't make records. As long as I can perform and make a good living at it, I don't have to record. I'm not thinking about how posterity remembers me. I don't care."

At Threadgill and Make a Move's show at Yoshi's two days earlier, the music was powerful and terrifyingly beautiful. The operative word for the evening was intense even though the leader tossed in dollops of humor throughout the captivating, rapturous 50-minute set. Recordings give a fleeting glimpse of Threadgill's genius. His live shows more than confirm his importance as one of the most innovative composers of the late 20th century. He winces when people call his music jazz, perhaps because he wants to distance his singular form of artistic expression from what gets typically branded as jazz. But to this listener's ears, Threadgill, along with a precious few other composer-improvisers (Ornette Coleman and Bill Frisell included), represents the future of jazz. In his music, boundaries tumble and freshness prevails.

"My music is constantly evolving," he explains when asked how he approaches his live dates. "It never gets set. It's a work-in-progress. Otherwise it becomes boring. You have to challenge yourself unless you want to be a stylist. That's never been my ambition. I admire stylists like Tony Bennett, who is one of my favorite people. But that doesn't go with my nature. I keep myself in a constant state of self-review. That's the only way to come up with something different. Once you know the music in a certain way, habits set in. Habits. You know habits are funny things. Your muscles begin to do things a certain way without you even thinking about it. You follow this process without using your mind. For me, I have to destroy the process so I can get to something fresh and new."

That doesn't make it easy on his bands. Ross and Cedras have been playing with Threadgill long enough that they telepathically communicate with their leader, instantaneously following his lead through the retards, accelerandos and whimsical detours. Threadgill's rhythm section has less experience playing with him. But he's committed to being the long-suffering instructor and mentor. As we head back to the car after lunch, he talks about his bassist Stomu Takeishi who plays with spirited abandon, wielding his instrument like a sword in a martial arts exercise as he deciphers Threadgill's works.

"Stomu is great, he's one of the greatest finds I've come across in years," says Threadgill, who met Takeishi through Ross. "Stomu has learned a lot. I had to knock some corners off him. He was trapped in this shit he learned in music school. I didn't know what to do with him. In fact, I almost gave up on him because he wasn't able to go into depth with my compositions. It was like he was in a cage. I'd tell him, 'Stomu, please don't play that crap. I'd rather you play wrong than play like someone else.' So finally he got rid of all his influences and started to find his own voice. He said, 'Henry, I didn't know I could ever get here. I'm free.' Now Stomu could get a job with anyone because he plays the bass like no one else."

Threadgill is pleased. His perseverence in Stomu's case has paid off. He says that sometimes a bandleader can get fooled by quick studies. He's wary of musicians who produce immediate results because in the long run they may not find the deep soul in his music. I remark that it sounds like he's a patient taskmaster. "You have to be," he replies, as he climbs into the Bug for the ride back to his hotel where a nap awaits him. "You show me a bandleader that has no patience and I'll show you a person that's not a bandleader."

He pauses, then adds, "And diplomacy. What about Billy Eckstine and that congregation he had? His guys were out of control. Their tour bus would come to town and they'd pull out their horns, gamble in the streets, get high, chase women, everything. A white person in those days wouldn't even think of doing that. But here were these black guys. Phew! They were beyond crazy, but Billy reined them in. And Duke Ellington. Damn, I don't know how the hell Duke handled the crowd he had. Cootie Williams was a terror. Ben Webster was trying to be Joe Louis and knock out everybody in America. And Paul Gonsalves, he'd be so drunk, but when Duke called on him, he played so damn good. That's the way it was with Duke. He'd say, 'Boom!' and that band'd be sober and alive. That was one of the most sophisticated units that ever existed, and it was all because of the way Duke handled it."

Hearing Threadgill-the-iconoclast melt when talking about Ellington- the-great is a surprise. I ask him if he would have wanted to play in the Ellington orchestra. His reply is immediate: "Oh, yeah. Definitely." Threadgill then tells me about the time he hung around backstage after an Ellington concert to introduce himself to the bandleader. "That was one of the highlights of my life. I was in my early twenties. He took me into his dressing room. I told him I loved his music and his orchestra. He asked me if I played and I told him I did but that I wasn't known. I also told him I was a composer. So he asked me to sit down at the piano that was always in his dressing rooms and play something for him. I was so nervous I couldn't even play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' But he was such a charmer. I was overwhelmed that he paid attention."

If Ellington were still alive, would he have liked Threadgill's music? "Oh, I don't know," says Threadgill shyly. "Well, yeah, I think he'd definitely like it."

As strange as it seems, Threadgill says he's indebted to Ellington. "I learned a lot from him - about leading a band, about musicality - but I never set out to imitate Duke's music. Just like I never emulated anyone I admired. That's why you can't hear their influences in my music. Piss me off once that a critic said my music sounded like Mingus. Kiss my ass. How can you become a great arranger/composer by copying someone else? Only individuals like a Henry Mancini who do it their own way become great. You have to find it on your own. You can't get stuck in someone else's shit and then try to get out of it. It takes years to wrestle yourself free from the grasp of someone's style."

We're sitting outside his hotel with the engine shut off. Threadgill's having fun, pumped full of energy while articulating what it takes to be a pioneer in jazz. "We all have too much to give the world through our own individuality. It's like researching cancer. If everyone was doing the same studies, we'd never solve the mystery. But someone will have the nerve to strike out on some wild theory. That's what it takes. You have to dare to stand out there all by yourself without a name. You can't care what the market says. You care about your art. You've got to find how to mix these colors for yourself."

Bay Area-based music writer Dan Oulette originally published this article, in slightly different form, in Stereophile magazine.

C o m m e n t s

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August 03, 06

I greatly enjoyed this interview, for Threadgill's insights, viewpoints and commentary on his own art. Henry has long been a singular thinker and performer in Amercian music ; what a great musician, master composer/player,long may he thrive !!

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