MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Tyshawn Sorey

One of my favorite recent musical discoveries:

Filed under: avant-garde, jazz

Congratulations to Henry Threadgill

This year’s Pulitzer winners were just announced, and the hugely imaginative avant-garde jazz legend Henry Threadgill has been awarded the Music Pulitzer for In for a Penny, In for a Pound. From the Pulitzer Committee’s citation:

In for a Penny, In for a Pound is the latest installment in saxophonist/flutist/composer Henry Threadgill’s ongoing exploration of his singular system for integrating composition with group improvisation. The music for his band Zooid — Threadgill’s main music-making vehicle for the past fourteen years and the longest running band of his illustrious forty plus-year career — is no less than his attempt to completely deconstruct standard jazz form, steering the improvisatory language towards an entirely new system based on preconceived series of intervals. His compositions create a polyphonic platform that encourages each musician to improvise with an ear for counterpoint and, in the process, creating striking new harmonies.

Threadgill is widely considered to be among the most important artists in jazz. The New York Times called him “one of the most thrillingly elusive composers in and around the jazz idiom: a sly maestro of unconventional timbres, bristling counterpoint and tough but slippery rhythms,” and NPR called him “a true idiosyncratic great.” He is a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding this year, and he continues to adhere to one of that august organization’s basic tenets: that of finding one’s individual path through original music. He continues to create music that is pushing the boundaries for what is possible.

The new work, which Threadgill calls an “epic,” includes four main movements written specifically to feature each of the musicians in Zooid: “Ceroepic” for Elliott Kavee on drums and percussion, “Dosepic” for Christopher Hoffman on cello, “Tresepic” for Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, and “Unoepic” for Liberty Ellman on guitar. They are introduced by an opening shorter piece and sandwich an exordium (“In for a Penny, In for a Pound” and “Off The Prompt Box,” respectively.) Threadgill’s own alto saxophone, flute and bass flute is woven throughout each section. In for a Penny, In for a Pound utilizes, as with all of his music for Zooid, a strategy of Threadgill’s own device: a set of three note intervals assigned to each player that serves as the starting point for improvisation. While this may seem simple on the surface, the juxtaposition of the notes played on each instruments alternately meld and clash, creating surprising chords and harmonies on-the-spot. Not held together by any chordal preconceptions, the result is true, improvised four-part polyphony. Of this music, Liberty Ellman, who will release Radiate, his first new album as a leader since 2006’s Ophiuchus Butterfly later this year, says: “Henry is extending the forms and writing more varied thematic material. There is even more dynamic and timbral contrast with ensemble vignettes turning to sparse monologues or group improvisation on the turn of a dime.” Zooid is certainly the only group able to perform these compositions since they involve a wholly different way of engaging in group improvisation. Thoroughly attuned with each other, the band continues to provide Threadgill with the foundation to expand on his ever evolving musical inspirations.

In all the discussion about the complex terrain of his compositions, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of Threadgill’s power as a player. In his review of Zooid’s performance at the Village Vanguard in 2014 — the first time Threadgill had played at that iconic venue as a leader in almost 25 years — critic Ben Ratliff of the New York Times, who chose it as one of his top ten top concerts of the year, wrote: “The intensifying strokes… were his alto saxophone solos. They were built of epigrammatic phrases, aligned with the moving intervals but pivoting off from them. They were out in front, gestural, actorly, elegant, noisy and tragic. Dealt in short segments, their essence could be absorbed piece by piece, as if he were feeding you with crumbs. They’d often end without traditional resolution, but with a sense of something serious hanging in the air.” A great Threadgill solo sets you on edge: you know that it’s going to be a jab, an uppercut or a body blow, but you never know how or when it’s going to hit you. It’s the same way with his compositions on In for a Penny, In for a Pound: it comes at you from every angle, at different speeds, in infinite combinations. That’s the beauty of Threadgill’s music for Zooid: that sense of constant surprise.

Seth Coulter Wells did an interesting interview with the artist for The Guardian:

Prior to Monday, the only jazz performers to win a Pulitzer prize for music (while still alive) were Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman….

On what his Pulitzer could mean for the school of ‘creative music’ pioneered by the AACM

Well, you know – we have no control over anything but what we do. I just try to stay hopeful: I don’t want to get too pessimistic about anything. Hopefully like some type of enlightenment will come about. Which is better for everyone, for all of humanity. Any time we can understand a little bit more about culture, I think it makes us better as a group of people, and more civilized as a group of people.


Filed under: awards, jazz, music news

The Latest “Sonic Evolution” from Seattle Symphony

Last week brought the newest installment in Seattle Symphony’s adventurous Sonic Evolution series: a collaboration with Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival.

The SSO describes Sonic Evolution, which began with Ludovic Morlot’s tenure and is now in its fifth season, as “a bridge for the Symphony to engage with Seattle’s creative community through innovative concert programs that celebrate the past, present, and future of the city’s musical legacy.”

Alack and alas, the series has managed to trigger a panic attack for the likes of Norman Lebrecht, who was moved last year to pen an absurd editorial claiming that the orchestra had “handed the pass to the enemy.”

This despite the irrelevant triviality of not having actually attended the performance in question, a part of which featured the rap legend Sir Mix-A-Lot (the object of his freak-out).

Two Sonic Evolution events rather than one have been baked into the current season. (Is that enough for Lebrecht to fret over the prospect of this unconventional concert format “replacing” the usual repertoire?) The second one, in May 2016, promises a collaboration (to which I’m especially looking forward) with the Seattle International Film Festival, Michael Gordon, William Brittelle, Fly Moon Royalty, and others.

There was much to recommend last week’s program as well, titled “Under the Influence of Jazz.” The concept of a jazz band-symphonic “fusion” of course has long roots by now, with George Gershwin among its most celebrated pioneers.

It remains a tricky proposition. And yet Derek Bermel upped the ante by pitching his multi-movement jazz concerto The Migration Series on an epic scale. (Bermel was returning to Seattle after a new commission last year from the Seattle Chamber Music Society.)

For this listener the risk paid off abundantly. Bermel originally wrote The Migration Series in 2006 on a commission from the American Composers Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under Wynton Marsalis.

It wasn’t until he was already involved in the composition, Bermel said during a brief onstage interview, that the sounds he was hearing began to evoke memories of the great cycle of 60 paintings by the same title by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000). The artist had a Seattle connection, having moved here later in his career, where he became a professor at the University of Washington. Bermel added that as a teenager he recalled being profoundly affected by seeing the series (which is currently split between the collections of MOMA in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.).

This cross-connection between music and visual art is another dimension of the ways Sonic Evolution is experimenting with opening up the concert format to other kinds of stimulation. As we listened to the Bermel, reproductions of paintings from Lawrence’s cycle were projected, ranging from landscapes and urban settings to chilling depictions of the violence faced by African-Americans during the Great Migration northward, along with complex crowd scenes.

Bermel says he didn’t aim to “illustrate” particular paintings but wanted “to focus on the shapes, colors, moods, and atmospheres evoked by groups of scenes within the series… In this grand American story, I gravitated toward the larger themes, those of determination, mystery, despair, and hope; Lawrence’s unique sense of perspective and distance – his generosity and universality of narrative – allowed the space for me to add music.” Apparently this was the first performance of The Migration Series to present the music in tandem with the art that inspired it.

Bermel constructs his five-movement score (with three connecting interludes) as a kind of jazz concerto grosso. The super-talented Roosevelt High School Jazz Band took on the role of the concertino, the band as hyper-soloist in dialogue with the SSO, while Bermel himself played a soulful, extended clarinet solo.

The composer aptly compares his method of construction here to a mosaic, and parts of the score tend to lure the ear like glittering shapes, while simple motifs recur as binding devices. If some stretches feel a touch overlong, what remains most striking is the quality of Bermel’s musical language: engaging, original, with something genuine to say. (You can hear a sample at the bottom of this piece from Second Inversion.)

Also on the agenda was a world premiere was by local jazz wizard Wayne Horvitz: Those Who Remain, a compact two-movement concerto for his longtime collaborator, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. In this case, I found the interest of the source of inspiration — the poetry of Seattle’s own Richard Hugo (1923-1982) — overshadowed the substance of the musical work.

Horvitz’s solo part (including room for improvisation) for Frisell seemed deliberately understated, and the orchestration was colorful and vibrant — especially the second movement’s chorale theme — but for all its charms, a first hearing left me underwhelmed, without a clear sense of musical profile.

In fact I was fortunate to have gotten a wonderful Horvitz fix earlier in the week at the Paramount Theater’s presentation of his original score for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (part of the Trader Joe’s Silent Movie Mondays): Horvitz and his ensemble performed the music live. It’s a fascinating and truly inventive collaboration between jazz and silent film.

The concert’s second half brought the Seattle-born vocalist Shaprece center stage, accompanied by Morlot and the SSO in arrangements of her songs by Phillip Peterson (and by an expressive pair of dancers and a bearded backup vocalist).

The theme of visuals continued throughout the concert — less successfully for the Horvitz and then with more liveliness (and club floor slickness) for Shaprece’s numbers. She commands such a beautiful voice I’d love to hear Shaprece in a wider range of material. But anything that’s reminiscent of Björk, as several songs in her set were, is fine by me.

–(c)2015 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: art, jazz, review, Seattle Symphony

In Praise of the Duke

It’s the birthday of one of my musical heroes, Duke Ellington (born on this day in my former hometown in 1899).

In his review of Terry Teachout’s new biography of the master, James Gavin describes the secret of his band’s sound:

Ellington played piano, but his real instrument was the orchestra. The sound he created was a tapestry of bluesy textures, lowdown swing and solo instrumental voices that growled, cried or wailed. Ellington led the band with a majesty that made him seem truly royal.

And here’s an excerpt from my essay for the National Symphony’s upcoming New Moves orchestral-ballet festival featuring music of the Duke — in this case, the giddy and infectious “Giggling Rapids”:

“Giggling Rapids” is a brief scene from Ellington’s belated debut as a ballet composer, The River. It dates from late in his career (1970) and was commissioned by American Ballet Theatre, with choreography by Alvin Ailey — his first large-scale collaboration with Ellington. The composer — uncharacteristically, notes Terry Teachout in his new biography — immersed himself in famous classical depictions of water to fuel his inspiration (think La mer, the “Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes, Smetana’s own “river music,” the Moldau).

Like the mighty Mississippi, The River encompasses a multitude of meanings and perspectives. Ellington, in his memoir Music Is My Mistress, describes a guiding metaphor of life’s passage from birth to death and rebirth as the river courses on down to the sea. He likens the development of an individual to the river’s passage. “Giggling Rapids,” with its restless energy and catchy, joyous, ever-repeated motif, occurs more or less at the toddler stage, when this imaginary Everyman “races and runs and dances and skips and trips all over the backyard until, exhausted, he relaxes and rolls down the Lake” (the ensuing section).

Filed under: American music, jazz

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