Wednesday, July 18, 2018

CD Review: Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg - Dirt... and More Dirt, Double Up Plays Double Up Plus, Román Filiú- Quarteria

Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg
Dirt...And More Dirt

Henry Threadgill
Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus

Román Filiú

When Henry Threadgill premiered "Old Locks and Irregular Verbs" at the Winter Jazz Fest in 2014, what amazed me was how the piece seemed to be built out of the sparest of parts, yet each of the musicians knew exactly how to fill the space in the music, moving it forward with direction. They built something out of the barest essentials, like they were planting seeds that immediately yielded a healthy crop.

That is just one skill that Threadgill possesses, conjuring that kind of power out of a group. His music can be dense, spare and intense, maybe a little hard to wrap the ears around. But when listners leave their preconceptions at the door, the majesty of the music comes out. That's another one of composer/saxophonist's traits - getting listeners to listen in that way. With accolades like the 2016 Pulitzer Prize as evidence, many others see these qualities in his work too. In a time when compact discs are continually maligned as obsolete, Pi, which has released Threadgill's work since it began in 2001, takes their commitment to him one step further by releasing two different Threadgill albums at the same time.

Dirt...and More Dirt was inspired by an art installation that featured 250 cubic yards of earth in a 3600 foot space. The group 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg features that number of performers. The "or 15" might refer to Threadgill himself, present throughout on flute, but standing out only in the final track with some rugged alto playing. He and four of the players also make up his Zooid ensemble, which gets bumped up on this release with additional brass, drums and two pianos.

The ten tracks are divided into two sections. The first six make up the parts of "Dirt" with the remaining four listed as parts of "And More Dirt." No significant difference between the two comes to forefront. What's noticeable is the way each section ends abruptly. Sometimes the group seems to stop mid-thought, like they were halted. Other times, a quick conclusion occurs. Ironically, the drums at the end of "Dirt, Part VI" ease right into "And More Dirt, Part I." Without looking at the CD player, it's easy to mistake the break between tracks.

Shifts in tempo or volume also occur within the sections, making it hard to give specifics without dissecting the entire piece. The brass plays raucously in "Dirt Part VI,' with trumpets and trombones playing vastly different lines, then the scene changes to flutes and muted trombones. When the two percussionists are left alone, it sounds like wind-up toys are being cranked to provide forward momentum.

Even when the whole piece ends, it doesn't do so with a strong conclusion. Threadgill's impassioned alto presents long, tones with slight vibrato, and even a wail that brings in the ensemble. Things could have continued but the leader has declared this is it. And you have to trust him on this because it works.

The composer doesn't play on Double Up Plays Double Up, letting Román Filiú and Curtis Robert McDonald take care of all the alto and flute work. David Virelles and David Bryant are joined by a third pianist this time, Luis Perdomo. (Virelles also plays harmonium.) Craig Weinrib is the only drummer though, joined by his Zooid bandmates Christopher Hoffman (cello) and Jose Davila (tuba).

While the aforementioned Threadgill work was filled with sudden stops, this set features a lot of open space, like much of his Zooid work. Davila works as the guiding undercurrent in the nearly 23-minute "Game Is Up," holding it together as it shifts from a lot of piano to alto and cello blends, finally to a bright, but somewhat cautionary theme. Whether or not "Clear and Distinct from the Other A" and its follow-up "Clear and Distinct From the Other B" are meant to resemble each other, each begins with stark piano lines, with cello working with it to lift up the alto (in "A") and flute (in "B"). Virelles' harmonium contributions during "A" almost sound like a lost accordion, adding to the intrigue. The closing  track "Clear and Distinct" offers a showcase for Davila, growling and singing as he blows the instrument, hitting the bottom of the register.

Once again, Threadgill has created some masterworks that prove to be a challenge when it comes to describing. His bandmates have said they feel the elements of the blues in his work, which isn't hard to notice. But he also reinvents those characteristics each time, coming up with something that doesn't sound like anything that's preceded it. Better to trust the master and listen.

Alto saxophonist Román Filiú plays on both of the new Threadgill releases, as well as the 2016 release of Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. On his Quarteria disc, the lessons he has learned with Threadgill comes to bear on his own music. The album was inspired by growing up in the public housing of Santiago de Cuba, where families lived in close proximity to one another. That concept launches the album in "Fulcanelli" where Filiú's alto, Ralph Alessi's trumpet and Dayna Stephens' tenor play melodies parallel, creating individual voices that don't interfere with one another.

Virelles and Weinrib are part of this rhythm section, together with bassist Matt Brewer and percussionist Yusner Sanchez. While they create grooves underneath, the horns (with Maria Grand joining on two tracks) float over them, acknowledging them but never content with simply giving into the rhythms. Filiú and Stephens both play solos in "Fulcanelli" that seem reflective, halting at times as if they're expressing their feelings candidly with great effort.

"Grass" combines a thoughtfully free part by Weinrib with more long tones from the horns, inspired by composer Oliver Messiaen. Of the three danzas composed for the album, "Danza #1" begins with a stuttering line similar to "Harina Con Arena," a brooding piece that appears earlier on the album. But "Danza #1" leans heavily on Sanchez and Weinrib to set the mood. While they take on similar duties in "Harina," Alessi and Filiú both play with more aggression on that piece.

Like Threadgill, and like the housing cuarteria that inspired Filiú, the saxophonist has created an album overflowing with diverse voices, with different ones coming to the forefront with each new listen.

To read my review of Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up's Old Locks and Irregular Verbs CD, click here. 
To ready my review of Zooid's In for a Penny, In For a Pound, click here.
To read my review of Zooid's This Brings Us To, Volume II, click here.

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