Threadgill at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco
i) A more or less
independent invertebrate organism arising by budding or fission, ii) a
distinct member of invertebrate colony.
— Dictionary definition
of Zooid (zoo-id)
alto saxophone, flute
Liberty Ellman acoustic
Dana Leong cello,
Rubin Kodheli cello
Jose Davila tuba,
Henry Threadgill — clad in a long, caftan-style thin-red striped shirt
which hangs down to his knees — brings his flute and alto sax to stage
center at the Palace of San Francisco’s Fine Arts. To his rear, drummer
Elliott Humberto Kavee sits in front of his drumkit. Acoustic guitarist
Liberty Ellman, on acoustic guitar, is to Kavee’s right. Jose Davila,
seated to Threadgill’s left with tuba in hand, is barely visible behind
his music stand. Cellist Rubin Kodhell and cello/trombonist Dana Leong
round out this eclectic ensemble.
The occasion is a rare San Francisco appearance by Henry Threadgill
and Zooid as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and it’s Henry’s
first appearance here with Zooid. Henry, who first came to attention as
part of the trio Air, is famous for his unusually-named ensembles Very
Very Circus and Make a Move. Zooid came into being when members of Make
a Move were unavailable for a gig.
The music of saxophonist, flautist, and composer Henry Threadgill is
always unique and quite unforgettable. Ever changing, unpredictable, flowing,
it is frequently surprising and incorporates a wide range of elements
and influences ranging from classical to Indian, from Sam Rivers to Ornette
Coleman, from marching band to blues. Fascinating and often enthralling,
Threadgill’s music is a waterfall of sound, which continually changes
shape and form, shifting from rivulet to raging torrent and back again.You
never know what to expect from Henry, except to expect the unusual. Where
else will you find tuba juxtaposed with acoustic guitar?
Threadgill and his colleagues stretch the limits of contemporary music,
molding a new form. Threadgill, speaking about one of his former bands,
himself explains it best. "In traditional improvisation, you manipulate
pre-existing chord changes or harmony in order to make a statement. With
Make a Move, I have reversed that entire process. The musicians play against
a series of intervals, like a code, that goes from one place to the next.
The harmony that is created fits what the musicians are playing, but in
fact the harmony is an illusion that does not really exist.... My new
approach passes very naturally before you, and it makes the listener assume
that nothing radical has taken place, when in fact they are listening
to something unlike anything they have ever heard before."
Henry Threadgill has been an important figure in contemporary instrumental
music since the early-70's. Threadgill has won “Best Composer” several
times from Down Beat's International Jazz Critics Poll and from Down Beat's
Readers as well. Born in Chicago in 1944, his aunt, a classical pianist
and singer, enrouraged him to start playing music at five. He started
playing the piano at nine, the saxophone when he entered high school.
He later attended Wilson Junior College, where he received a degree in
flute and composition from the American Conservatory of Music. He enlisted
in the service in 1967 and served in Vietnam as a musician. After discharge
in 1969, Threadgill returned to Chicago and formed the trio Air with bassist
Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall in 1972. Air disbanded in 1985,
and he has been on his own ever since. Zooid came about when members of
Make a Move, his previous band, were not available for a gig.
Back at the concert, Dana Leong uses his laptop to add electronic effects
to his cello playing; he plays more cello than trombone during the evening.
Both he and Rubin indulge in some wild bowed cello playing. Elliot Kavee,
who appears to be delighted to participating at this deluxe gig in his
former home town, plays with sticks and cymbals adding thoughtful accents.
Liberty Ellman plays rapid fire, sometimes discordant, on his six string
acoustic with electric pickup. The tuba is an uncommon instrument in jazz.
Howard Johnson played it in Jack De Johnette’s Special Edition, and I’ve
seen Sam Rivers perform with a tuba and drum trio. A Threadgill trademark
has been to combine instruments such as the tuba, trombone, and French
horn — instruments which contribute to the uniqueness and contrasting
tonalities of his sound.
Throughout the evening, Henry alternates between flute and sax. The
hour-long set is followed by a second which begins with an expansive trombone
solo filled with tonality and color.
At the evening’s end, Henry announces “We play up to you. Not for you;”
he dedicates the final number to Jackie McClean. Ellliot jumps in with
a drum solo, playing all over his kit. Liberty comes in on guitar, and
Henry takes a raucous tenor solo.
Henry’s latest recording, and only recording with Zooid, is “Up Popped
The Two Lips.”