Monday, April 25, 2016

CD Review: Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up - Old Locks and Irregular Verbs

Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up
Old Locks and Irregular Verbs

Last week it was announced that multi-reedist/composer Henry Threadgill won the Pulitzer Prize for the "distinguished musical composition by an American" found on his 2015 album In for a Penny, In for a Pound. Congratulations to Mr. Threadgill, his bandmates in Zooid and to Seth Rosner and Yulan Wang of Pi Recordings, who launched their label to support the composer, and consistently release thought-provoking albums that I wish I had more time to expound upon.

However, right as the Pulitzer announcement was made, Threadgill released a brand new disc with a new ensemble. Double Up features both Jason Moran and David Virelles on piano, Roman Filiu and Curtis MacDonald on alto saxophones, Craig Weinrib on drums and Zooid members Christopher Hoffman on cello and Jose Davila on tuba. Threadgill serves as conductor, and doesn't play any instruments.

The 46-minute suite Old Locks and Irregular Verbs was premiered at the 2014 Winter JazzFest, and I attended the first of two performances at Judson Hall. Dedicated to the late Lawrence D. Butch Morris - who created the concept of "conduction," which combined improvisation and conducting - the piece had a loose abstract quality to it. But even when groups of musicians broke away into what seemed like free improvisation, they played with great deal of direction, never letting their focus wander. When Threadgill took center stage towards the end, directing them in a series of rising, roaring chords, it was an intense experience.

Recorded in a studio over a year later, this disc recreates all the excitement of the initial performance and perhaps more, since it offers the chance to revisit the music repeatedly and discover its contours. According to the press release, most of the music was written out, which can explain why the unusual instrumentation works so well. Moran and Virelles play off of each other, and when they frequently work together, things never get too busy. Both seem pretty evenly panned in the speakers, as do the saxophonists, but "soloists" aren't indicated anywhere, putting the focus back on the piece itself. The saxophones spew sharp, idiosyncratic melodies which are probably worthy of Threadgill himself. Only during "Part Three" does one of them get overly aggressive, spilling out fast lines. Drummer Weinrib adds some intriguing moments on his own, like in "Part Two" where he rests as much he plays a simplistic blend of taps and clicks. In the next section his solo has a rich quality, like a written-through break for the trap kit.

This all paves the way for the final movement (the disc divides "Old Locks" into four tracks though it's actually one continuous piece). Threadgill assembled this section to sound like a funeral dirge, the clearest reference to Morris' passing. But even though the horns gradually create a funereal feeling as it takes shape, the mood does not feel bleak or distraught. The subject is missed but the music evokes both a remembrance of happy bygone days and the desire to move on his honor. That's when those powerful chords crash in, bringing it to a climax. Moran has admitted that the ending always brings him to tears, and it's easy to see why. This is moving music.

If In for a Penny, In for a Pound earned Threadgill the Pulitzer, what will this album get him?

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