Wednesday, July 29, 2015

CD Review: Henry Threadgill Zooid - In for a Penny, In for a Pound

Henry Threadgill Zooid
In for a Penny, In for a Pound
(Pi Recordings)

In Ashley Kahn's book A Love Supreme: The Making of John Coltrane's Signature Album, one of Coltrane's peers talks about how the saxophonist told him to listen to an album. Focus on a different musician each time you play it, Trane said. Listen to, for instance, the saxophonist, first. Then go back and listen to the bassist, then the pianist, etc.

If I personally gleaned any wisdom from Coltrane that I could use, that was it. Not that I listen to every album that way, but I attempt it because it can give you a greater understanding of the music, especially if the music is dense and packed with information. And if any album fit that description, it's In for a Penny, In for a Pound.

This two-disc album consists of a four-movement "epic," as Threadgill calls it, along with an opening piece and an exordium, which comes in the middle of it, i e. at the start of disc two. Each movement was written to feature a different member of Zooid: "Ceroepic" features drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee; "Dosepic" features cellist Christopher Hoffman; "Tresepic" for both Jose Davila's tuba and trombone; and "Unoepic" for guitarist Liberty Ellman.

Not the pieces and their soloists are clearly defined. Everybody plays throughout each section, moving in and out, and occasionally playing in harmony with one or two other bandmates. "Unoepic" features as many solo drum interludes - where Kavee executes a fill and lets the drums resonate before continuing - as his own "Ceroepic." Threadgill uses a cue that has each soloist utilize a predetermined three-note interval as their launching point, but that isn't easily discernible either as it's hard to tell when the "soloist" actually enters and when they're playing an ensemble piece.

The best thing to do is throw out the manual, figuratively, and dive in. Threadgill (who selflessly didn't include a piece to focus on himself) provides an interesting focal point, with his alto saxophone, flute and bass flute. He often moves in short phrases, while the background players employ long lines or phrases. This album feels like it has the most alto work from him in quite awhile. His tart tone sounds like a throwback not to his days with Air, but goes back even further to an earlier era when the instrument had more of a comical side. Threadgill once lead a band called Very Very Circus and his tone seems to fit right in with that kind of music, especially when Davila's tuba is walking - sauntering, actually - behind him.

Kavee provides a lot of direction to the music, setting a pace that holds everything together even when it seems like guitar and cello are playing solos on top of one another. While there's usually a lot happening at once, things never get too busy and no one steps on anyone else's feet. The four movements average around 17 minutes each, with tempos and textures shifting at a moment's notice. Threadgill uses dynamics a lot to emphasize this, not to mention pregnant pauses within the sections. The final "Uneopic" has many of these stops and shifts and it ends with little fanfare rather than bringing things to any kind of roaring climax.

In for a Penny makes for a sprawling listen, and one that's best taken all at once. The members of Zooid have worked with Threadgill long enough to fully understand his approach and bring energy to his music. Taking the time to single them out and listening closely to their parts  might be asking a bit, but it's the best way to fully appreciate this composer.

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