Live Music + Gig Reviews

Henry Threadgill @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

19 November 2011

If it’s traditional to save the best for last, then the 2011 London Jazz Festival may have succeeded in doing just that with its final weekend. The festival closed on Sunday with a rare performance from the iconic – or perhaps iconoclastic – Ornette Coleman, his first in London since curating the Meltdown festival in 2009. Arguably even more special for aficianados of jazz’s avant-garde was this extremely rare concert from Henry Threadgill and his latest ensemble Zooid.

In the USA, Threadgill is rightly regarded as a major contributor to the music; a diligent composer and improviser committed to innovation and the development of personal voice. In the UK, it is arguable that Threadgill has been neglected and underrated, with much of his discography having been made readily available on CD only recently. Enthusiasts for Threadgill’s music, which is cerebral and thrilling in equal measure, have been waiting a long time to see him perform.

Before that special moment, though, the audience was treated to, or perhaps challenged by, a distinctive and highly idiosyncratic solo piano set from the Doncaster-born pianist John Escreet, who now mainly lives and works in the US. Escreet’s demeanour at the piano is intensely serious – it is often hard to tell if he is focused or nervous or perhaps both. Either way, he begins in the most contemplative way imaginable, using space as much as sound and being immensely careful in his harmonic choices.

Escreet’s technique is clearly pretty much peerless – and he is more than capable of rapid improvised flourishes – but this performance is less about virtuosity and more about the development of an individual approach. Even at his most playful, scraping at the strings inside the instrument or the wonderfully demented asymmetric rag, he seems to be deconstructing musical history and grasping for a new language. The only contemporary operating in a similar area might be the outstanding Craig Taborn. This performance must have been deeply divisive – some will no doubt have hated it.

Unlike the drumming legend and showman Roy Haynes earlier in the week, Threadgill is not one for niceties or introductions. Instead, his performance was all about intense, compelling music. Some reviews have already noted, with pejorative implications, that Threadgill often served as ringleader to the group, who were seated in a semicircle, listening closely and contributing sparingly himself. Zooid is clearly a highly collaborative enterprise, with a finely balanced set of musical characteristics and no one predominant personality.

Threadgill’s compositions involve the use of an interval block method, in which different members of the group are given different intervals or a small series of notes with which to work. Within this framework, they are free to improvise. It is a classic example of restriction and discipline leading to liberation. Combining a modern chamber music set-up with improvisation, it is fascinating to hear and observe how Threadgill creates a fresh, contemporary sound from mostly older instruments; the guitar and bass are amplified acoustic instruments. Threadgill’s own contributions, on flute, bass flute and alto saxophone, are clear, incisive and inspired.

What is perhaps most fascinating about Zooid is how creative they are on the level of texture and timbre. The intense, sometimes chaotic improvised contributions are grounded by the intricate, remarkably groovy drumming of Elliot Humberto Kavee. With demonstrative, sometimes aggressive bass player Stomu Takeishi avoiding a traditional role, Kavee’s clever manipulation of time becomes even more significant. To prevent the high level of harmonic and rhythmic tension becoming overwhelming – the band are capable of sustaining high intensity playing for a remarkable period of time – the group is frequently sub-divided into improvising duos, creating satisfying variations in texture, sound and dynamic.

Whilst the low-end sounds from bass and tuba sometimes dominated the mix, perhaps at the expense of Liberty Ellman’s guitar or Stephen Hoffman’s cello, there is also a sense that, despite the whole music sounding free-spirited and adventurous, much of it is very carefully orchestrated and arranged by Threadgill. It would be fascinating to see exactly how his charts are scored.

In a festival that has often been preoccupied with the history and tradition of jazz, here was an evening of radical, highly personal musical voices. Whilst the music could hardly be described as accessible, it was undoubtedly one of the year’s most provocative and exciting performances, in any genre.

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Henry Threadgill @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London