Zooids New and Old


Schoenberg warned a century ago, during that twilight zone between Wagner and Stravinsky, that the tempered scale was used up—its melodies worn out, its thematic variations a close-order drill going nowhere. Of course, jazz proved him dead wrong by revitalizing all the verities with blue harmonies, rhythmic force, and melodies of expressive and exuberant originality. Still, he was right about European classicism, a not insignificant field at the time, and his solution, serialism, forced his adherents to disavow habits and conventions. This produced a whole new musical world, though not many hits. Meanwhile, jazz thumbed its nose at the worrywarts and had a high old time for 50-plus years, until it, too, began to ruminate about habit and convention, opening the gates to rock ‘n’ roll, which filled the hit-making gap. Now, at the dawn of a hip-hopping new century, one can’t help but notice that the tempered scale once again seems used up—its melodies worn out, its thematic variations a close-order drill going nowhere.

Jazz’s Schoenberg, Ornette Coleman, devised three solutions. The first was the chimera of free jazz, which offered spontaneity on a blank grid, producing a montage of ebullient melodies, one-one rhythms, and providential harmonies—though Freddie Hubbard’s bebop habits revealed that freedom was a matter of, as Lester Bowie would later observe, “what you know.” Wary of spontaneity’s limitations, Coleman issued solutions two and three in 1976, on Dancing in Your Head. At the time it was released, in that twilight zone between fusion and neoclassicism, many thought the story was Coleman’s use of electric instruments and backbeats, but it became increasingly clear that the key innovation was scrupulous notation that forced the rhythm section to abandon conventional patterns. By including a brief collaboration with the Master Musicians of Joujouka, he cracked the door open to a third source of rejuvenation, patronizingly known as world music.

Coleman wasn’t out there alone—others were working along the same lines before and during. But where other innovators release albums, Coleman has a penchant for producing manifestos. The fact remains that most modern jazz that isn’t mainstream-conservative combines free improvisation, heady notation, and, not to put too fine a point on it, exotica. You could not ask for a better example than the new band Henry Threadgill debuted at the Knitting Factory on September 15, a sextet called Zooid (“1. Biology. An organic cell or organized body that has independent movement within a living organism, especially a motile gamete such as a spermatozoon. 2. Zoology. One of the usually microscopic animals forming an aggregate or colony, as of bryozoans or hydrozoans.” American Heritage Dictionary).

Threadgill has been collating the free, written, and world options since the mid ’70s, starting at least as far back as Air and pieces like “Untitled Tango.” But Zooid, even in a sometimes tentative premiere, took a bold step beyond Air and such later bands as Very Very Circus and the ongoing Make a Move in combining the raucous exuberance of familiarity with fastidious notation that forces both the chamber unit and its members to think fast and fresh. The group’s internationalism is literal. Only Threadgill and acoustic guitarist Liberty Ellman are American-born; Tarik Benbrahim, who plays oud, is Moroccan; Jose Davila, who plays tuba, is Puerto Rican; drummer Dafnis Prieto is Cuban; and accordionist Tony Cedras, the only holdover from Make a Move, is South African. Much emphasis is placed on the strings, but the band’s peculiarly jerky heartbeat is in the rhythms. The meter changes, at times, from measure to measure, keeping the musicians’ eyes on the lead sheets and their minds on the moment.

Zooid was conceived as a stopgap for a gig that was booked before Threadgill discovered that not all the Make a Move musicians would be available. He might have taken it easy, jamming with friends for a few nights, but instead configured an ensemble that required new music and much rehearsal. He composed eight new pieces, four for flute and four for alto saxophone, and readapted Very Very Circus’s “Hope A Hope A,” a perfect, dessertlike set-closer. The evening opened with two flute pieces. “Tickle Pink,” an undulating six-note riff and tremolo, emerged cautiously—the players hewed to written harmonies and meters as Threadgill navigated a solo. The piece cohered best, however, when Liberty Ellman eased his way into an invention with knifelike articulation (he plucked at or near the bridge), sustaining lines long enough to crest the changing rhythm. The arranged time and harmonies proscribed relaxed swing, but inspired novel improvisational figures. Threadgill had stacked the deck against habit and convention. Even Cedras, who plays so expansively on Where’s Your Cup? (the Columbia CD quietly released a year after the label bumped Threadgill), sounded hesitant.

But as the set continued, a mutual authority kicked in, and what started as a negative print developed into a vivid picture. Threadgill’s alto helped. His sound is always a tonic, combining two standard fruit metaphors—pear-shaped pitch and peach-fuzz timbre. Parts of “Do the Needful” suggested a clattering mechanical toy slowly winding down, only to get a sudden burst of life. The leader’s gritty solo, with its ferocious, arpeggiated dives and swoops, stayed the center, even when simultaneous meters vied for attention; where do you look?—the drummer says one thing, the tuba another. Then, with a stunner called “Around My Goose,” the issue of Schoenbergian mazes and forced originality disappeared, as the ensemble cohered into a practiced chamber sextet, capering through the soft melody with the push-me-pull-you suppleness of an accordion, providing a pneumatic cushion to float the solos. The meter, too, was compelling—you couldn’t tap four, but you wanted to tap something.

On “Hope A Hope A,” first heard on Spirit of Nuff . . . Nuff, you could tap all the fours you wanted. Familiarity bred fluency, and after a riveting drum solo that established the second-line beat, and a full-bore Threadgill alto attack, Cedras found his balance, bounding mightily on fat, resilient chords. Then the gifted Ellman broached a thoughtful lyricism with touches of Django. The guitarist is remarkably quick on his feet; he examines the rhythmic turf, thinks his phrases, and within a few bars finds a groove. Prieto also made a strong impression, feeling his way through the metrical skips and hops precisely and, at times, with a slam-bang audacity. Oud and tuba were used almost exclusively within the ensemble—a thumping, reedy, herky-jerking contraption of surprising elegance. It will be back.

If you owned a record label and had the pick of musicians, you would sign Threadgill for the innovative richness of his imagination. But you would also want the kind of funky pop-jazz band that can be counted on to pay the bills—a listener-friendly group that packs bars and clubs, gets big jukebox action, and sells a zillion records. Who would have thought in the ’60s that this means you would want the Archie Shepp-Roswell Rudd Quintet, which returned last week, after a 34-year layoff, at the Jazz Standard? Opening night (a necessity for me in order to make deadline) may have been something of an open rehearsal, but never mind: Club life hasn’t been so much fun since repeal. From the first selection of the evening, an expanded version of Rudd’s “Keep Your Heart Right” (the first track on their 1966 Impulse classic, Shepp’s Live in San Francisco, which became a true classic after the 33-minute masterwork Three for a Quarter, One for a Dime was added to the CD), you knew all was right with the world.

It may be tempting to note that aging avant-gardists always return to the blues, that spontaneous inventions end up seeking tonics and subdominants and bar lines and so forth, but you have only to search out Rudd’s Everywhere and Shepp’s Four for Trane, Live in San Francisco, and, if you can find it (I wish I could—I long ago wore out my reel-to-reel), Live at Donaueschingen (all with Rudd) to know that they were never as scary as they thought we thought they were. It’s been a long time since Shepp’s rueful, dark baritone told us about Rufus’s snapped neck, semper Malcolm, and the Attica blues. But even then a bluesy bemusement and balladic tenderness infused his music, just as a Dixieland blowsiness always abided in Rudd’s. In the intervening years, each disappeared from the front lines for long stretches. Well, whatever was ailing them has been cured. With and without plunger, Rudd was electric, a workman come to work. And Shepp, in his black fedora and double-breasted, was equally compelling tinkling an insouciant piano waltz or letting rip with his patented long and grainy tenor saxophone loop-the-loops.

The accompaniment was strictly Rolls Royce: Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille shimmered and thumped, staying mostly in the background, keeping the funk palpable, then disappearing for a couple of duets—including Herbie Nichols’s “Change of Season.” It was good to see the fifth wheel, trombonist Grachan Moncur III (who joined with Rudd on Shepp’s Mama Too Tight), but his elliptical solos were less commanding than his ability to beef up the ensemble. Rudd suggests the old man of the mountain, while Shepp with his dimpled grin suggests a keeper of secret ironies. They are wonderful together. Even “Steam,” Shepp’s 1976 portrait of a cousin who was killed in a street fight at 15, became a comic turn as the players mused on what a cool nickname Steam is (“His real name was Robert,” Shepp said quietly). This is in no way a reactionary band; sometimes, as Edward Albee wrote around the time of Free Jazz, you have to go a long way out of the way to come back a short distance correctly. I’ll leave it to you to figure out a connection between The Zoo Story and Zooid. I’m just relieved to find so much jazz hot in town.