LJF concert review: Henry Threadgill’s Zooid

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London UK

While all those smaller gigs all over the city are important in making the London Jazz Festival representative not only of jazz in the world but in this city, one of the really valuable things LJF can achieve with its backing from Serious and BBC Radio 3, is the presentation of seriously important musicians who have brought so much to this area of music down the years, but whom we don’t get to hear nearly often enough. And composer and woodwind player Henry Threadgill is one of those.

The band was the same one that had recorded the most recent album, This Brings Us To: Vol II (Pi Recordings PI36) – Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on bass, Elliot Kavee on drums and Jose Davila on trombone and tuba – with the addition of Christopher Hoffman on cello.

The striking thing about a Threadgill band is that, no matter who is playing, they will always sound like Threadgill as much as they sound like themselves. So thoroughly all-encompassing are his compositions and the musical atmosphere he creates, that musicians have no choice.

Henry Threadgill with Stomu Takeishi in the background

So, while the leader and composer stood silently in deep concentration at the centre of his arced musicians for the first half of the first piece, there was no mistaking, as electric bassist Takeishi took the introductory solo with only drummer Kavee for company, whose music we were listening to. It has elements we are all familiar with – conventionally tuned notes with intervals between them, but we have never heard them sound like this before.

Threadgill has increasingly moved towards the African way of overlaying lots of single-note lines rather than using chords in his music (although even his trio Air didn’t have a chordal instrument). He has also applied to those lines a highly original use of melody and cadence. There might be the blues in there, there might be New Orleans funeral music, there might be circus strains, there might be tribal ceremonial music, there might be free jazz and classical music in there, but it is all absorbed into this Threadgill style so that its origins are disguised and all we have is what we now hear. We are forced to be fully in the moment and fully in the room with precious little musical baggage.

Takeishi provided the visual contrast to his impassive master, dancing bare-footed until his guitar strap broke and he was forced to sit, though still he managed some rocking moves to match the constantly shifting. life-filled lines he has been contributing to Threadgill bands since the 1990s.

Liberty Ellman provided some of the most absorbing solos of the evening, and even prompted Threadgill to a single toothy, if momentary, grin. The acoustic guitar sound has been such a crucial part of Threadgill’s sound, either from Brandon Ross or Ellman, alongside the flute, that it is difficult to imagine the leader’s music without it.

With Davila on tuba, the composer was able to explore the lower ranges he so loves, sometimes having two intersecting bass lines, sometimes leaving Takeishi free to solo while the tuba held the bass pulse. On muted trombone in harmony with Threadgill’s bass flute, Davila was able to provide the evening’s most serene moments.

Hoffman did outstanding work with bowed solos and a particularly fine interchange with Ellman, while Kavee constantly invented and assisted in the building of each solo to a remarkable intensity while maintaining his role as fulcrum.

Threadgill himself saved his most expansive instrumental contribution to the end with an extended and impassioned alto saxophone solo. Elsewhere he favoured brevity and concision on alto flute, a player who has refined what he needs to say personally down the years, while expanding what he says through others.

The sound might have been a little muddled at times with some booming bass notes – this is not an easy band to amplify – but it was a joy to hear the great man and his music being created freshly before us. One to treasure.

British pianist now resident in New York, John Escreet, opened the evening with a solo piano set. At times it was absorbing but at times difficult to concentrate on, leaving the impression that his main strength lies in his group work. Perhaps excited anticipation of what was to come got in the way.

You’ll be able to hear the Zooid set on Jazz on 3 next Monday night, 28 November. More here.

Categories: Live review

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  1. Birmingham Jazz » Blog Archive » Visit to London Jazz Festival

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