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."