At this point in Henry Threadgill’s career, we already know the dynamic. Everything else is a refinement of those shifting polyrhythms, those floating melodies that skirt about the tonal and the atonal like hummingbirds at springtime, and that ever-present feeling that all this art just wouldn’t work if you just couldn’t help but keep tapping your foot. It’s all there with Threadgill, that’s his sound. Now with his new large ensemble, 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg — made up of a guitarist, a bassist, two drummers, a cellist, a tubist, three alto saxophonist, two flutists, two trumpeters), two trombonists, and two pianists — there’s the opportunity to make that sound into something even grander on their new album, Dirt… And More Dirt, on Pi Recordings.
Some of these players are the usual suspects for an outfit like this. Joining Threadgill are fellow members of his sextet, Zooid– Liberty Ellman on guitar, Chris Hoffman on cello, Jose Davila on tuba, and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. But then there’s other folks who have joined the repertory like tubist Jose Davila, alto saxophonist Curtis Robert Macdonald, pianists David Virelles, Luis Perdomo & David Bryant, alto saxophonist and flutist Roman Filiú, and percussionist Craig Weinrib of Threadgill’s octet, Double Up. Suffice it to say, they know how to get down together. This is the intention of this large ensemble, to meld such intentional composition with high calibre improvisation, particularly to establish this dynamic with so large a group. In these two longform pieces broken into parts, there is room for this melding of sounds and feeling, space for the shifting of moods, and never does one get the sense that Threadgill in crafting his largest ensemble yet has made anything at all even approaching topheavy. The album is indeed grand, but in its balanced composition, keeping tension as it holds attention, and never spending too long in any one direction but also never having some sense of freneticism, everything all just comes together until the point that when the album ends, it’s a relief, like swimming up from pool after diving in the deep end all with the intention of jumping back in again.
A friend recently told me that male artists typically make larger and larger work as they get older, though this is not typically the case with female artists. I look forward to finding that disproved (and/or to see Kara Walker make and even larger sculpture made of sugar and/or for Linda May Han Oh to put together a dectet fifteen years from now and to see where that goes for the following fifteen years) but certainly see the first part of that case here. An artist revered for his ear, his insight, and his impeccable ability to bring the right folks together to play has amassed some 14 or 15 musicians together to bring two compositions to light, two compositions that seem foundational to this sound and, according to the composer, are similar in theme. It’s big and amazing and weird and, if you know the career of Henry Threadgill, you probably would have known that already.
The Pulitzer Prize in Music has only been given to a jazz artist three times in its history– Wynton Marsalis, Ornette Coleman, and Henry Threadgill (for 2015’s In for a Penny, In for a Pound with Zooid). That was three years ago and the man has kept going at it, bigger and bolder than ever while still sounding, in every iteration of him as a bandleader, very much like him. Henry Threadgill crafts swirling excellence, even from mere dirt… and more dirt. Great things can grow from the right dirt, you know.
Dirt… And More Dirt, the new album from Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg, is out May 18th on Pi Recordings.
Henry Threadgill – alto saxophone, flute, bass flute
Chris Hoffman – cello
Liberty Ellman – acoustic guitar
Jose Davila – tuba
Ben Gerstein – trombone
Jacob Garchik – trombone
Jonathan Finlayson – Bb trumpet, F trumpet
Stephanie Richards –Bb trumpet
Curtis Robert Macdonald – alto saxophone
Roman Filiú – alto saxophone, alto flute
David Bryant – piano
David Virelles – piano, harmonium
Thomas Morgan – bass
Elliot Humberto Kavee – drums
Craig Weinrib – drums, percussion
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.