Workshops, and Worlds Worth Believing In (Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill Caught Live)

Steve Coleman (left) and Henry Threadgill top my list and loom large on today’s jazz landscape. (photos: left-courtesy Pi Recordings; right—Nhumi Threadgill)
Steve Coleman (left) and Henry Threadgill top my list and loom large on today’s jazz landscape. (photos: left-courtesy Pi Recordings; right—Nhumi Threadgill)

The best gigs I’ve attended lately seemed more like workshops in the development of new music than packaged entertainment or standard clubs sets.
To me, that’s a good thing.
In order to frame Henry Threadgill’s current stand at the Village Vanguard, leading his Zooid ensemble (his work with that group was recently honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Music), and Steve Coleman’s month-long residency at The Stone leading his Five Elements group and a newer ensemble, Natal Eclipse, along with other configurations—let me return to the beginning of a Wall Street Journal piece I wrote about these two musicians last year:

Those who pine for a new “big idea” in jazz—one that lends the music’s next chapter a catchy name—miss what’s going on.
Radical thinkers—seeming outliers—are today’s prime movers. If this has been the case throughout much of jazz’s history, what is different today is that such innovators no longer beget clear schools that gain popularity, such as bebop or even free jazz. Jazz’s forward flow is not well measured by stylistic monikers and pop-culture breakthroughs, but rather through profound ripples of impact. The most influential musicians now suggest less about how jazz should sound or be sold and more about how meaningful musical possibilities may be awakened within the context of jazz tradition.
On those terms, two musicians— Henry Threadgill, 71 years old, and Steve Coleman, 58—loom especially large. Messrs. Threadgill and Coleman have achieved masterly and original voices as instrumentalists (both play alto saxophone; Mr. Threadgill is also a flutist). Leading unconventional ensembles, both are starkly authoritative yet also warmly nurturing presences. Most significantly, each has successfully met one of jazz’s central challenges: to synthesize the acts of composition and improvisation through personalized yet rigorous approaches to structure and form. Each has crafted and stuck to a unique process that can’t really be imitated but can be shared.

That piece has outdated references: Coleman just turned 60, which is hard to believe because he plays with a young man’s wonder and swagger, and he still looks good in a backward baseball cap. Yet his music has advanced largely through what must be considered accumulated wisdom.
Perhaps as a birthday present, his friend and fellow saxophonist-composer John Zorn ceded the club he owns, The Stone, for a month-long celebration. Such a residency is the sort of thing that happened generations ago in jazz clubs but not really in my listening lifetime. And for Coleman, a month (a lunar cycle) holds particular physical and spiritual promise. (The music of his 2010 Five Elements release, “Harvesting Semblances and Affinities” related quite literally to the phases of the moon.)
I made it down to The Stone a few times this month. I got to hear Five Elements in all its consistent glory, and with the relatively new addition, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, who holds her own alongside Coleman’s longstanding partners: trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman. (On a final night Marcus Gilmore took over at drums; I missed that, but I’d bet it presented fascinating wrinkles).
Early on in the month, I heard a sextet (with Finlayson, Okazaki, bassist Linda Oh, percussionist Neeraj Mehta and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner). It turns out that Coleman and Turner had not performed together before, which surprised me. Their connection sounded intuitive, and the contrasts between their tones—Coleman’s slightly tart and ever-alert phrases; Turner’s softer-edged and seemingly relaxed ones—was a distinct treat. I’ve long admired Turner’s music; it has its own clear logic and manner, which folded nicely and without compromise into Coleman’s demanding and distinct music. I was entirely unfamiliar with Mehta, a percussionist who plays an interestingly idiosyncratic setup (within it are a set of PVC pipes with affixed drumheads). Apparently, Coleman heard Mehta playing in a series concerts featuring the compositions of Per Nørgård, a Danish composer Coleman admires, and decided to see how Mehta might fit in with his music. I’d say the experiment is working, providing customary drive to Coleman’s “rhythm chants” while also lending new colors and tones.
On his actual birthday, September 20, Coleman led an ensemble called Natal Eclipse. The nonet includes: Coleman, Mehta, Finlayson, Shyu, clarinetist Rane Moore, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, violinist Kristin Lee, bassist Greg Chudzik, pianist Matt Mitchell and singer Jen Shyu. I’d heard this group the first time Coleman presented it some months ago at the Village Vanguard. It creates a startlingly lovely sound, more dense and (dare I say) pretty than that issued from Coleman’s Five Elements, and in some ways a distillation of the remarkable harmonic advancements Coleman made with the 21-piece assemblage on his brilliant 2015 CD, “Synovial Joints.” At the Stone, Coleman ended the Sept. 20 late set with a long balladic piece (the sheet music went on for some 15 pages). Shyu told me they were about to go into the studio to record. I can’t wait to hear it.
In this group and throughout Coleman’s residency, special notice must be made of Finlayson. Now 34, he’s been playing in Coleman’s ensembles for roughly half his life; he knows this stuff as well as he likely knows anything. But he’s also an emerging composer and bandleader in his own right with a sturdy and wily concept all his own; this too comes clear during his solos. And then there’s his technical prowess: The Stone is a fairly unforgiving space, yet Finalyson’s playing there sounded big, rounded, sweet or sour as needed and often bright as if bouncing around a more welcoming concert hall.
Coleman calls what he creates “community music,” in the sense that it involves deep and prolonged relationships that feed and shape what’s played. He has always prized the environment of a musical workshop. That’s what he walked into when he entered Sam Rivers’s Studio RivBea upon arriving in New York City decades ago, and it’s what he’s sought to create from his earliest performing days here (first, at an art gallery, I recall, and then at places like the now-defunct Tonic and the original Jazz Gallery). None of which is meant to imply that his music is not carefully considered and worked-out, or that its presentation, including at The Stone this month, is messy or disjoint. And when recorded, it’s always decidedly a finished piece.
But Coleman sees music more as process as product. For those of us who share that attitude (at least when it comes to ensembles of superior musicians) a month of Coleman at The Stone is not unlike the joys and fascinations of the latest bootleg release of sessions by Miles Davis’s quintet (out Oct. 21, by the way)—and, no, I’m not comparing Coleman to Davis; you know what I mean. We can hear how the sounds and spaces or a dynamic system get negotiated in real time.
One delightful and insightful aspect of these gigs is the chance to see how Coleman reacts to his own music being worked out—when he seems to think it has become a knotty problem, and when it sparks spontaneous joy.
Same was true of Henry Threadgill’s late set Wednesday night at the Village Vanguard. (He leads Zooid there through Sunday night, so get moving…)
There were moments where Threadgill would, all of a sudden, get seized with pleasure. I wasn’t even sure why at times, but I could sense that energy getting folded back into the music.
Threadgill’s performances offer entry not simply into a process but into a strange and lovely sonic environment that seems in some senses unchanged across even decades yet in others wildly mutable even over the course of a few minutes. His Zooid group —including guitarist Liberty Ellman, cellist Christopher Hoffman, drummer Elliot Kavee’s Jose Davila on tuba, trombone and bass—is one in his long line of unconventional assemblages that suit his desires.
The newest wrinkle here was the tres—a Cuban instrument most closely associated with son and its derivatives. Ellman played it in an entirely untraditional style (one that I’m not sure my Cuban friends would have ears for). But to my ears, it was pretty cool. And it lent both sonic overtones and a newfound edge to the patterns that undergird Threadgill’s compositions. When the set was over, Ellman told me that after Threadgill recently returned from a trip to Cuba, he called the guitarist up and told him he’d brought something back for him.
“I thought he was giving me cigars or rum,” Ellman said. “But he handed me this tres and said, ‘I want you to play this, OK?’”
As much as anyone’s music, Threadgill’s is a process in real-time display. Sometimes it builds steam slowly, as on Wednesday night, when only at the end of the set did Threadgill move from flute to alto saxophone to play spare but searing lines, sometimes shadowed by Davila’s trombone playing, sometimes at odds with it, always feeding a fiery churn of funkiness that existed in a space beyond meter.
As the season changed this month, as I was forced with each report of sudden violence to consider what kind of world I’m living in or what world I’ll awaken to should the presidential election sway a certain way, as I grow disenchanted with the electoral process or the current processes of news dissemination, it’s nice to get lost for a couple hours in processes I can relate to, that I can trust, and to drift into worlds defined by structures, forms and intents I may not fully grasp but I can believe in.
Thanks, Henry. Thanks, Steve.

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