The New Threadgill Album: Same Old? Not Really
If you’re a Henry Threadgill fan, you’ve probably already got his new sextet album Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp on Pi Recordings with his long-running band Zooid. Threadgill’s been at the forefront of improvised music for so long that we take him for granted, and we shouldn’t: 68 years old, still constantly questioning, searching, reflecting, pushing the envelope. For fans of collective improvisation, the question isn’t whether this is a good album, it’s where it fits in the Threadgill oeuvre, and the answer is close to the top. How sunny does the future look here? Is today all rain and gloom? Hardly. This is an upbeat, optimistic, richly energetic album.
The revelry is between the players: along with Threadgill on alto sax and flutes, there’s Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. Nuts-and-boltswise, what Threadgill is doing is assigning specific intervals to each instrument as a basis for improvisation, creating seemingly endless permutations of the intricate counterpoint that’s been a signature device of his for decades. It does for rhythm what Miles Davis’ modal approach did for melody. Threadgill has long been praised by his fellow musicians as a composer who writes specifically to his players’ strengths, and that’s especially apparent here.
The opening track, A Day Off, is basically a fractured swing tune. A bass/cello pulse loosens as Ellman wanders and Hoffman fills in the spaces with a carefully interweave. Then Takeishi joins the spiral as Ellman dips low, Threadgill joins the party and the rest of the group can’t help but take the casually jaunty energy up a notch. The title track begins as artfully camouflaged clave and a rhythmic thicket lit up on one end by prowling tuba and on the other by Ellman’s atonal chords, Threadgill’s blithe flute handing off to the cello which takes it in a darker direction while Kavee slowly switches to a shuffle. The relatively brief So Pleased, No Clue slows the pace and distances the instruments from each other: spacious pizzicato cello and guitar echoing each other, tectonic shifts between the low instruments and if you listen closely, you realize they’re playing a rondo!
The centerpiece here is See the Blackbird Now. It’s the most overtly melodic and by far the darkest track here: Threadgill’s long, moodily bluesy bass flute solo following Hoffman’s apprehensive staccato is arguably the album’s high point. Ellman follows it gingerly as the band meanders murkily behind him, the trombone pulling everybody back above ground. Hoffman’s agile staccato lines evoke Stephane Grappelli as the band pulses and shuffles on the neatly entwining Ambient Pressure Thereby, Threadgill’s enigmatic alto sax bobbing and weaving as the rhythm coalesces apprehensively and then relaxes for a playful joust between guitar and tuba. Davila’s trombone gets to build spaciously joyous suspense for the rest of the band to explore and gently sway toward a resolution on the concluding cut: Hoffman gets to take his time relishing in bringing it around. For fans of improvised music, it doesn’t get much better than this.
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