Henry Threadgill and Zooid – In for a Penny, In for a Pound [TrackList follows] – Pi Recordings (2 CDs)

Henry Threadgill and Zooid – In for a Penny, In for a Pound [TrackList follows] – Pi Recordings PI58, (2 CDs) 40:12, 38:57 [5/26/15] ****:

(Henry Threadgill – alto saxophone, flute, bass flute; Jose Davila – trombone, tuba; Liberty Ellman – guitar, producer, mixing; Christopher Hoffman – cello; Elliott Humberto Kavee – drums, percussion)

The front cover photo on the latest release from Henry Threadgill and his group, Zooid, is significant. It shows a paved rural road which takes a serpentine passage up into low mountains. You can see the beginning, but the length and end is unclear and unknown; and the direction and course is unspecified. That imagery is at the heart of Threadgill’s two-CD project, In for a Penny, In for a Pound, on Pi Recordings. Listeners might glimpse familiar terrain, but before long we’re all heading into mysterious territory, where anything can and will occur.

In for a Penny, In for a Pound continues Threadgill’s long-standing application of his musical system designed to incorporate composition with group improvisation. This album also maintains the utilization of his quintet Zooid, which is appropriately named after a biological term for a cell capable of spontaneous movement independent of its parent organism. Threadgill’s material encompasses some rules, as a foundation, for what is heard. He establishes a set of three-note intervals assigned to each musician, which function as the starting position for improvisation. Seems simple, but that is deceiving. The juxtaposition of the notes, played on each instrument, alternately blends and collides, and creates unanticipated chords and harmonies. The result is improvised, four-part polyphony. Threadgill’s open-ended charts produce unique outcomes each time the same piece is performed. Thus, what is experienced on this release is an once-in-a-lifetime confluence. Each subsequent concert appearance which includes these pieces is or will be singular.

Music of this complexity and unpredictability can only be achieved by musicians who intuitively follow Threadgill’s intentions, which is why Zooid—Threadgill’s primary music-making ensemble for the past 14 years—is well-suited to the task. Threadgill (on alto sax, flute and bass flute) is joined by Jose Davila (trombone, tuba); guitarist Liberty Ellman; cellist Christopher Hoffman; and drummer/percussionist Elliott Kavee. Bassist Stomu Takeishi, who was on the previous three Zooid records, is not in involved. Threadgill purposely wrote four main movements for each musician: two per CD. The whole should be regarded as a single conception, though, not as separate sections. The longer tracks are preceded on each CD by a shorter, introductory tune, which is knit into the larger musical setting. Threadgill dubs the totality as something “epic,” consequently each extended composition uses that word in the title. The first CD’s inaugural cut, the title track, runs 4:35. Threadgill’s flute and Davila’s tuba form a cheerful ambiance, while a mid-tempo rhythm sustains a jovial underpinning. Ellman’s skillfully plucked guitar and Hoffman’s bowed cello also offer angular moments.

The nearly 20-minute “Ceroepic” is conceived specifically as a feature for drums and percussion, but there’s much more going on. This marathon number spills over with artistic motion. The initial four minutes is replete with outgoing exertion. Then there’s unexpected silence. Soon, Kavee uses percussive bells to heighten Hoffman’s acute arco work. The metrical footing picks up again, as Ellman takes the spotlight. And yet that’s only the first eight minutes. About 11 minutes in, Kavee lays out what he can do on his drum kit with rolling toms, splashed cymbals, percussive embellishments and more. Throughout the widespread “Ceroepic,” Zooid formulates a realm where the only constant is persistent curiosity about what will happen next. The 16-minute “Dosepic” emphasizes Hoffman’s cello. Hoffman commences with a melancholy solo, but the ruminating pace quickly escalates when the rest of the group enters. Drums and trombone intermingle together as one rhythmic instrument, while Hoffman adds slashing cello dissonance. Just after the eight-minute mark, Threadgill spills out with gashing sax lines. When he steps out, Hoffman and Kavee fashion a bracing duel. The melancholia creeps back at the end, imparting a moody conclusion.

The second disc launches with the fast-moving, “Off the Prompt Box,” which Threadgill cites as an exordium (which means “beginning” in Latin). Like the other material, the 3:35 track has twists, turns and sudden angles. The 17-minute “Tresepic” was crafted for trombone and tuba. But there is lots of space for building expressive passages for everyone. Ellman’s guitar has a nimble characteristic. Early on, there is a memorable trio portion where tuba, guitar and drums intertwine. Later, activity dies down as Davila takes a lightly-distorted trombone solo; then a stop-and-start rhythmic subdivision ebbs in which includes another fine Kavee drum improvisation solo. A rave-up segment arises, where everyone goes full bore. Flute carries the tune out. The 18-minute “Unoepic” is intended to showcase Ellman’s guitar. “Unoepic” gets underway with a softer tone, and is underscored by solo guitar, cello and nuanced percussion. Then the stride accelerates. Ellman flings his fingers across his fretboard as the others combine speed with a flexible rhythm. After another unhurried part, Threadgill becomes the focal point with a superb alto sax workout, which proves he has not lost any of his formidable chops. In for a Penny, In for a Pound offers 79 minutes of music which has too many curves, changes and divergences to pinpoint here. This is a venture which requires close inspection, attention to both the details as well as the larger viewpoint. This isn’t a world to enter without some personal involvement, but it is a journey where the compass leads to unforeseen, untraversed roads worth investigating.

TrackList:

CD 1: In for a Penny, In for a Pound (opening); Ceroepic (for drums and percussion); Dosepic (for cello)
CD 2: Off the Prompt Box (exordium); Tresepic (for trombone and tuba); Unoepic (for guitar)

—Doug Simpson

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