Sunday, November 25, 2012
Dimples: Learning to love Zooid
Photograph: Frank Stewart
It's a cliché for artists working in pretty much any area, especially a self-consciously experimental one, to talk up their desire for constant reinvention. Henry Threadgill walks that walk more than most, as he's proven throughout a four-decade-plus career; his M.O. has generally been to found a band and along with it a compositional concept, burrow as deep as he can into that particular aesthetic for a number of years and then simply let it go and start all over. Threadgill spoke extensively about this pattern when I interviewed him for The Wire in 2009; at that point, This Brings Us To, Vol. 1, the third album (counting the limited-edition Pop, Start the Tape Stop) by his current group, Zooid, had just come out—or was just about to—and when I made reference to Up Popped the Two Lips, the band's debut—eight years old at that point, to be fair—he set me straight: "I'm talking about the new, this record. That other record, you can't reference that. That has nothing to do with what I'm doing."
As I've spent more time with Zooid, I've come to realize that not only does it not really make sense to compare the band's current output with Up Popped; it might be best to banish the rest of the previous Threadgill catalog from your mind, as well, when dealing with H.T. in the present tense. The most honest I can be when describing this music—documented so far on three Pi Recordings discs: the two This Brings Us To volumes and this year's Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp—is that I have often found it borderline impenetrable. This could easily just be due to a lack of music-theory training on my part. "It's an intervallic language that's kind of like serialism," Threadgill told me of the current Zooid compositional method (employed on the This Brings Us To albums and, I'm assuming—though perhaps unwisely, given H.T.'s rate of evolution—on Tomorrow Sunny and in recent live works, like the brand-new Dimples, a concert-length piece that I heard at Roulette last night). "Serialism is like when you have so many pitches, generally 12 pitches, but you can serialize stuff with 6 pitches, 7 pitches, whatever… Well, the language, the compositional language, the musical language, the harmonic, contrapuntal, melodic language is such that we move from one series of intervals to another series of intervals throughout a piece of music." I only understand what that means in a very surface way; I'd hard-pressed, e.g., to tell you in any any given Zooid piece when the interval series has changed, and for that matter, I'd love to listen to one of these recent H.T. records in the company of someone who truly gets what was going on.
That said, having spent good time with every single other recording Henry Threadgill has made under his own name (including his wonderful LPs with Air), I can tell you that the fundamental sense of uncertainty I've felt when listening to Zooid, that sense that there's something there to listen for that I'm missing, some key that will unlock not just my greater "comprehension" of the music but also my greater joy in it too—the sense of drama and dazzlement and, yes, I'll come right out and say it, fun, that I get from, say, the Sexttet or Very Very Circus—is unique to this band. To put it bluntly, Threadgill seems to have—and I guess it shouldn't have taken me three long years to make an observation like this, but I've wanted to take more Zooid in before attempting to quantify my general impressions of the band—refocused his attention away from the elements of his work that I'd previously found most enjoyable. In the interest of defining those elements, it probably makes the most sense to just play a piece like this:
This is from the 1989 Sextett album, Rag, Bush and All, but I could have just as easily picked something from ’93's Too Much Sugar for a Dime or ’96's Where's Your Cup? (featuring the Very Very Circus and Make a Move bands, respectively), or any number of Air records. I rarely hear Threadgill discussed in the greater "mainstream" jazz lineage, but when I first got to know his work, he made more sense to me there—in the grand tradition of Ellington and Mingus, especially in line with the latter, given Mingus's penchant for epic, sumptuously melodic, composition-forward works (e.g., The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady), where conventional instrumentation and form was only a basic blueprint; all of these are descriptors I'd apply to a good deal of vintage Threadgill, esp. the Sextett—than in line with, say, AACM cohorts such as Anthony Braxton or Roscoe Mitchell. He seemed, in short, like an avant-gardist whose work you could truly love, rather than just respect. (Not trying to say, by the way, that I don't love the work of Braxton or Mitchell or, say, Muhal Richard Abrams, as well; it's just that Threadgill at his best is, for me, on a different level. He is one of my favorite composers, period, something that I couldn't honestly say about those others I've mentioned, as much enjoyment as I've derived from their work.)
To oversimplify things, I'll say that with Zooid, the Threadgill lovability factor seemed to me to have decreased greatly. (And as always, I'm speaking only for myself here; not trying to evaluate his work objectively, only to record my personal response to it.) Whereas I've often found, e.g., Air, Sextett, Very Very Circus and Make a Move pieces getting stuck in my head, that has never happened with a piece from the current Zooid phase. Again, that's not a value judgment; it's just an observation. Although I realize full well that there's nothing random about Zooid—in fact, according to my limited understanding, this body of work might be Threadgill's least random and most meticulously plotted—the music can sometimes sound that way to me, either in its more abstract-sounding, chamber-improv-ish mode or its more groove-driven mode, the latter of which often makes me think of a mobile with each component rotating on its own axis, sharing only a mysterious, subliminal relationship with the others.
After hearing last night's concert—which augmented the core Zooid sextet with two extra trumpeters and two extra trombonists—I feel like I'm closer to appreciating Zooid on its own terms. The work, one long episodic piece of about 90 minutes, felt about as slippery to me as previous Zooid pieces had, but hearing that much of the band in an uninterrupted context, and getting to watch Threadgill conduct and marshal his collaborators, I had the sense that I was getting inside the project more, grasping both what it is and isn't. That "conduct and marshal" part is key; Threadgill's participation in Zooid is far less that of a conventional bandleader/performer and more one of an organizer; to put it straightforwardly, he barely played last night. There were a few brief Threadgill solos on two different flutes (a "regular" one and a larger, lower one that I'm pretty sure was bass flute) and some typically searing alto saxophone work near the end of the set—Threadgill's burry urgency on that horn is one of my absolute favorite musical sounds, period, and as with many of the other blatantly pleasure-giving aspects of his prior work, it's only delivered sparingly in Zooid—but Threadgill spent much of last night's set glued to the score, cuing in various players or "sections"—there was a very clear strings vs. brass thing going on, with Threadgill tending to deploy the two sections separately, only bringing in the full ten-piece at select moments—and marking time for drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee.
Speaking of Kavee, he's the clear nerve center of Zooid for me, bringing a badass kind of drive and hypnotic funk to the band that harks back to the best of Very Very Circus. I rarely feel like I'm able to parse out the specific rhythmic cycles—I'm guessing they're as intricately plotted as the intervallic ones—but at the same time, I relish the danceable momentum that comes to the fore whenever his beats kick in. (Threadgill seems to as well; he may not play a lot when onstage with Zooid, but he sure does dance.) These "groove" sections, for lack of a better term, took up about half of last night's set. There were also various other textural episodes: the trumpeters and trombonists playing sans rhythm section, summoning low, Bill Dixon–like tones with just their mouthpieces; guitar, cello and bass reveling in their own tangly feature; fleeting moments of quasi-big-band-ish full-ensemble deployment. It's to Threadgill's credit that as elusive as the music could seem at times, none of the players appeared to be daunted by the Zooid concept; while guitarist Liberty Ellman, a charter member of the group, is clearly the band's chief shredder, the new recruits (esp. trombonist Ben Gerstein and trumpeter Stephanie Richards) got some pretty deadly, unbridled improv in as well at various points.
My favorite moment of the set came right at the end, when Threadgill (on alto) and the strings were playing this kind of airy, unsettled dirge, with a creeping rubato time feel. The trumpets and trombones, all muted, entered for a final few meditative moments, and I felt like was hearing some new organization that I hadn't heard from this band or from any Threadgill project before. Zooid doesn't necessarily leave you with big, splashy, memorable moments that you go home humming, but it does leave you with a desire to look deeper. It keeps you on the outside, operating in its own little bubble, but at the same time, it subtly invites you to look in, observing this strange little mini civilization with its own tough-to-discern but clearly orderly laws and customs.
I'm finding, gradually, that the less I hold on to what I instinctively want from Threadgill, what I've loved about him in the past, the more drawn in I am by Zooid. As I was reminded last night, this current body of Threadgill work is indeed difficult, tough to get a foothold in, but it burrows under your skin if you let it, especially if you see it live, where's Threadgill's hyper-engaged joy in the music, and the committed attunement of his collaborators, is unmistakable. I guess the greatest compliment I can pay to Dimples is that, as it ended, I found myself instantly wishing I could take home a recording of it. (There were mics set up, so let's hope someone's working on that.)
Threadgill's never founded a nation I didn't want to visit and spend good time in; Zooid has sometimes seemed to me like an unfriendly place—a rocky, sparsely settled island country, maybe—but I'm starting to feel more at home there: studying the fossils embedded in the ground and the seabirds flying overhead, relishing the salty sting in the air. I'm not sure I'll ever feel the sheer warmth for this band that I do for, say, the Sextett, but there's an intrigue there, a magnetism that's perfectly in line with past Threadgill feats. I trust him enough that I'm always going to want to know more, to do the legwork. Last night, I could feel that effort slowly, almost imperceptibly paying off.
Since Dimples isn't yet available in recorded form—again, I'm really hoping that Threadgill/Pi see fit to issue something by this expanded version of Zooid—I've returned to Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp in the wake of the performance. The more I listen for what's there, and not for the absence of what isn't, the more I find this album blooming before my ears. (I plan to go back to the prior Zooid full-lengths as well, and that includes the oft-overlooked Pop Start the Tape, Stop, a limited edition LP that came out in 2005.) It sounds reductive, but the pleasure I'm finding in Zooid is the pleasure of a band. I mentioned above how Threadgill played only very sparingly at Saturday night's concert. That's not so much the case on Tomorrow Sunny; he pops up as much as any of the other soloists here. But still, his alto and flute work isn't necessarily the focus of the music. It's like what he's trying to do with Zooid is wind up a top and let it go, spinning off either in that hugely infectious avant-funk vein (e.g., "Ambient Pressure Thereby") or a more searching, open-ended one ("Put On Keep / Frontispiece, Spp"). The result is that you focus on the respective contributions of the "sidemen" not just as much as if not more than Threadgill, but as much as if not more than the given "composition."
As I noted above, there are very few examples of what I'd call thematic material in this music. (Again, maybe my ear is deficient, but I'd still be at a loss to sing you any of these pieces, the way I could some of my favorite Sextett or VVC selections.) So what you have is this very spare, uncluttered sonic space (even when the music is at its most heated)—a kind of terrarium you can look into, a forum for the observation of behavior. I'm listening right now to "Put On Keep," which ends with an extended duet between cellist Christopher Hoffman (who makes his recorded Zooid debut on Tomorrow Sunny) and bassist Stomu Takeishi (who, I should note, was not on the Dimples gig; Zachary Lober was on bass). There's nothing guiding your ear beyond the intimacy of the sound; no particular melodic arc, no rhythmic cycle (as far as I can tell). Could this passage and the many others like it in the recent Zooid literature be considered free improv? I'm guessing there's an underlying parameter, but the beauty of it is how unhurried, untaxed, un-goal-oriented it sounds. It's just coexistence and deep listening—a moment-to-moment "Let's see where we get." There are certainly moments of such playing in, say, Air, but there's a serenity and grace to the group interaction in Zooid that feels new—an unpretentious invitation to simply listen to what each musician sounds like, singly and set against the others. Again, I'm still in the midst of my reappraisal (and fortunately, there's no time limit on such things), but right now, that's the aspect of Zooid that's jumping out at me most.
*Howard Mandel has also written, with refreshing candor, about the slipperiness of Zooid. ("Is the music or are we ourselves at fault?") Mandel was reviewing an earlier Zooid-plus performance, this one featuring the core group plus extra strings; I'm not 100% positive, but I believe this is a video, via Roulette TV, of the concert in question (both the review and the video annotation reference a piece called "All the Way Light Touch").
*Ethan Iverson touches on the stark distinction between Zooid and earlier Threadgill here:
"The last two records on Pi, This Brings Us To Vol. 1 and 2, showcase this latest atonal language, a language that definitely gets a certain sound out of the music. I admit that I could use the occasional non-language piece to offset the encroaching web! But, again, Threadgill never looks back, and he's hardly the first great composer to settle into a dauntingly abstract, granitic late music."