Portal: Alexander Hawkins on Henry Threadgill

March 2013

Jazz organist, improviser and interlocutor Alexander Hawkins takes us on a web journey through the work of Henry Threadgill and his Zooid group.

All The Way, Light Touch
A video of Henry Threadgill performing with his group Zooid, a special commission by New York City venue, Roulette. Zooid may be the single most exciting group working in music today. You can really concentrate on the micro-detail, or sit back and let it just happen. When I first heard the group, I was intrigued, but I didn't love it. Later, I got it. I don't know how – possibly by just stopping trying so hard –- and I loved it. It's at once confrontational but at the same time completely friendly. Some of the mysteries of the ensemble: how can a group float and stomp at the same time? How on earth can they live inside a composition for so long, and never seem to turn the page?

Henry Treadgill and the Society Situation Dance Band
Can't go wrong with watching Pheeroan, Bob Stewart, Abdul Wadud, Leroy Jenkins and the other members of the Society Situation Dance Band. Threadgill never released a record with this group, arguing that it wasn't a recording band, and that to have recorded it would have been missing the point: it was specific to the live context (hence, "Dance Band"). Fortunately for those of us who never saw the group, we do have this high quality three-part footage of a blazing show from Hamburg.

Steve Coleman’s "Symmetrical Movement Concept"
I love Threadgill's music because of how it sounds, but it's also fascinating from a technical point of view. I think it's fair to say that Zooid has done nothing less than pioneer a new way of making music. Theirs is a system based on intervallic relationships. Threadgill is not the only composer to use intervallic logics as a basis for music making. Steve Coleman's language is another where intervals are very important, and yet with very different results. Coleman's own website is a fantastic resource. His approach towards digital distribution was, and remains, pioneering. He is also generous with his thoughts, and the "Symmetrical Movement" essay – now regarded as a classic in certain circles – is a fascinating introduction to his personal take on intervals as they might be applied to jazz improvisation. Intervallic thinking hasn't been restricted to improvised music (as fans of Carter will attest). Per Nørgaard's website is similar to Coleman's, insofar as it makes available a wealth of writings about his musical processes. It says something to the strength of the intervallic concept that it can support three languages as distinctive and varied as those of Threadgill, Carter, and Nørgaard.

Henry Threadgill interviewed by Ethan Iverson
Threadgill gives a great interview to Ethan Iverson here. Iverson's Do The Math blog is quite a resource, with this extensive interview with Threadgill being a highlight for me. Let's just say that Henry can really give it both barrels when needs be. For example, his comments about mainstream jazz education in part three of this interview.

Threadgill discussing his music with Brent Hayes Edwards, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia
Another lengthy interview. Like his compositions, Threadgill can be long form, all the while never threatening to tread water.

My interview on BBC Radio 3 about Threadgill and Zooid
Something of a Primer, or at least a rudimentary Invisible Jukebox on Threadgill. The occasion of the broadcast was the Jazz on 3 broadcast of the Zooid show at the 2011 London Jazz Festival. It was simply one of the greatest live music experiences I've had, and one that definitely still shapes how I try to conceive the live sets of my own groups.

Tricentric Foundation
Threadgill was a product of the extraordinary creative crucible which was Chicago and the AACM in the mid-to-late 1960s. One of the things which is most remarkable about the musicians of the school and period (Wadada Leo Smith, Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Anthony Braxton, etc.) is that they have such highly personal soundworlds, and yet are still identifiable as representative of a certain approach towards music making. It is very difficult to identify what characterises this approach, but one aspect is a radical open-mindedness towards influence. I've never met Threadgill but he may well be unimpressed at me offering so many links focusing on his music when there is so much fascinating stuff out there by others. So my final link is a 'compare and contrast'. I spend a lot of time reading and listening on the Tricentric Foundation website – the homepage of a foundation dedicated to the music of a peer of Threadgill, Anthony Braxton. But listen to how differently their soundworlds have developed. For me, a Rosetta Stone to understanding how their languages relate is the Muhal Richard Abrams album 1-OQA+19, where both Threadgill and Braxton appear at an early stage of their development. The Tri-Centric Foundation site is a true goldmine, featuring everything from potted explanations of some of Anthony's musical systems, to a staggering trove of bootleg recordings collected together and made available for free download. But don't overlook either the spectacular output of the Braxton House catalogue proper. So many of them are phenomenal.

Alexander Hawkins is featured in The Wire 349 in an article by Brian Morton.

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