Harlem Stage Gets Very Very Threadgill

Photo: Nhumi Threadgill

I can’t imagine a better way to experience the promise of creative music rooted in jazz than to spend much of this coming weekend at Harlem Stage, which opens its season with “Very Very Threadgill,” a two-day festival featuring more than 30 musicians performing the music of composer, saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill, as curated by pianist Jason Moran.
The series is named for Very Very Circus, a 1990s band of Threadgill’s that, like nearly all of his ensembles, featured unusual instrumentation (that one blended tuba, electric guitar and, at times, French horn). This two-day festival spans Threadgill’s career. Saturday night’s lineup features music from his landmark 1970s-80s trio Air (as revisited by Moran and is trio, The Bandwagon), his 1980s Sextett (featuring an original member, drummer Pheeroan akLaff), and the powerhouse trio, Harriet Tubman, which includes longtime Threadgill associate, guitarist Brandon Ross, and singer Cassandra Wilson. Sunday night’s offerings move from solo, duo and chamber group to a culminating set by Threadgill’s star-studded Society Situation Dance Band.
I consider Threadgill the most fascinating and original composer of my lifetime. His singular musical language challenges listeners through layered rhythmic tensions and surprising sonic textures and yet soothes, too: Like sunrises and snowflakes, each Threadgill piece brings the sorts of glorious shifts of color and form that help make life rewarding and embody its flow—never the same yet part of some grander design, some continuum, we can live within but never fully grasp.
Threadgill was among the earliest members of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the 1960s and remains among New York City’s creative lodestars, which has been his home since the 1970s.
I interviewed him in January for a Wall Street Journal piece, just before he mounted “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs,” in tribute to the late composer and conductor Butch Morris, with a group that included two pianists, one of which was Moran. Threadgill and I met at DeRobertis Pasticceria and Caffe, not far from where Threadgill and Morris made their homes and established their artistic presences in Manhattan’s East Village decades ago. DeRobertis is the sort of place that exudes the humble dignity that results from clarity of focus—to sip espresso and eat sfogliatella there is to grasp what that means—and that for a century maintained its place on a street and within a neighborhood where gentrification has wiped away most of what once was. Unfortunately, it appears that the café, whose property is listed for sale, may soon be gone. And, sadly, Morris is no longer with us (“Old Locks” was Threadgill’s tip of the hat to his dear departed friend.)
Threadgill is still going strong, pouring and new music even as his past work assumes new relevance and influence. During our conversation, he told me he’d been admiring Moran’s music—“and the way he approaches his music”—for some time.
Soon after, I called up Moran, who was then looking forward to his first direct experience his Threadgill. Moran, whose acclaim includes a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, expresses himself in many way these days: through his Bandwagon band; as pianist in saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet; via ambitious projects like “All Rise,” his new CD (an elegy for Fats Waller in collaboration with, among others, singer and bassist MeShell Ndegeocello); and through his programming for the Kennedy Center, SFJazz and Harlem Stage.
Here’s what he told me about Threadgill:

We have never worked together. But he and I have always had a relationship, and I often ask him about composition. My father showed me his music when I was in high school, and I have always regarded Threadgill the best living composer, hands down. He has such a rich catalog that I thought it would be good to have a lot of that music played again by various ensembles made up of Threadgill devotees.
Henry has a very different way of writing music.  Once you see it, you understand why his bands sound like nothing else. He has found a multitude of systems and tools to help visualize the sounds he requires.  Learning the system is a major hurdle. He’s such an amazing teacher, so the process is actually that, a process of learning the system.

That process, those systems, and how they flow from one musical moment to the next as well as across generations (Threadgill is 70, Moran is 39) will spill from Saturday night into Sunday evening, punctuated by a Sunday afternoon public discussion.
And, oh yes, come Sunday night, there’ll be dancing.

Saturday, September 27
         AIR (with Jason Moran and The Bandwagon)
         SEXTETT (with cornetist Graham Haynes, trombonist Craig Harris, Pheeroan Aklaff and others)
Sunday September 28
3pm-7pm (music begins at 4)
         Pre-performance discussion with Henry Threadgill and Jason Moran, moderated by Brent Edwards

         CHAMBER
         IMANI WINDS – with Jason Moran
         Duo: Greg Osby (alto sax) & Jason Moran (piano)
         Duo: Pyeng Threadgill (vocals) & Jason Moran (piano)
         David Virelles (piano)

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