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Henry Threadgill: Very Very Threadgill 2014

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Henry Threadgill
Harlem Stage Gate House
Very Very Threadgill
New York, NY
September 27-28, 2014

Henry Threadgill isn't one to repeat himself. In nearly 40 years of recording, he's only repeated a few compositions. So why would a retrospective of his work by a mere recapitulation? Very Very Threadgill—held Sept. 27 and 28 at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse in upper Manhattan—was a tribute comprised of realizations, not reunions. Pieces from the past were re-imagined and bands reconfigured—to the extent that some players took the stage not for the music they'd had a hand in recording but with another lineup from the rich history of Threadgillia.

The beautiful theater—once a part of New York's aqueduct system —was filled to its capacity of a mere 190 for both of the long programs. Saturday night featured music from Threadgill's first two major bands—the trio Air and his Sextett— while a Sunday matinee that stretched into the evening focused on post-1990 work, including a very rare appearance by the Society Situation Dance Band.

While Threadgill, who turned 70 this year, is well regarded as a saxophonist and a bandleader, his talent for songwriting is often overlooked— perhaps because it's so rarely on display. But it was one of the currents that ran strongest through the two days. The first night ended with the trio Harriet Tubman (guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer JT Lewis, both members of Threadgill's '90's outfit Make a Move, and bassist Melvin Gibbs) joined by Cassandra Wilson for "Apricots on Their Wings," a song Wilson sang on Threadgill's 1986 album New Air with lyrics that constitute an uncommon jazz psychedelia. Wilson clearly enjoyed revisiting the tune (she also recorded it on her 1987 album Days Aweigh), smiling and dancing between verses and encouraging Gibbs to stick with a riff so she could lay in a little throaty scatting that morphed into a couple of lines of "thank you, Henry." It was one of the high points in a weekend of spirited performances.

Pyeng Threadgill—who has released three albums of her own jazz inflected blues tunes—sang two of her father's songs in two different sets. Accompanied by pianist Jason Moran, who organized the weekend, she sang "A Piece of Software," a soulful, ballad during a set purportedly of chamber works (which was either poorly labeled or poorly curated but was musically strong nonetheless). The chorus-less song, with lyrics by Wilson and originally sung by Amina Claudine Myers on the Sextett's Subject to Change, wouldn't be out of place on a pop diva's album. Pyeng also took the stage during the rousing closing set by the Society Situation Dance Band. Also appearing during the dance band's set, were Fay Victor and Claudia Acuña.

Not surprisingly, the less complicated material tended to get the freer interpretations. The opening set was given to the music of Air, Threadgill's first major band and his smallest. It's hard to imagine that music without the distinctive voices of bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, and the new formulation didn't try to emulate it. The ensemble moved between a duo, a quartet and a quintet. Darius Jones and Steve Lehman took "Keep Right on Playing, Through the Mirror and Over the Water" as a duet with perhaps a nod to Dolphy on Lehman's part, and the two saxophonists alternated with the full band (Moran on piano, Henry Grimes on bass and Pheeroan AkLaff on drums), joining forces for a full-band blowout on "Sir Simpleton." Grimes proved an odd choice for the chair of the enigmatic and rock solid Hopkins. More often than not Moran comped bass parts on piano with Grimes embedded in the rhythm section. They didn't sound like Air and didn't try to. They didn't play rags or fall into bold group statements. Rather, they were a band playing their own take on four songs from a beloved band from decades past.

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