“In for a Penny, Out Like a Lamb”
By now I've listened to Henry Threadgill’s “In for a Penny, in for a Pound” (the title has a nicer ring than "Might as Well Be Hanged for a Sheep as for a Lamb", even if you're not a vegetarian, and even if you’ve paid not even a penny for your digital copy, and even if you’re frustrated by decades’ worth of Threadgill’s delightfully enigmatic titles) several times – usually not the whole 75-80 minute six-part composition without interruption, but nearly always one entire disc at once. I'm giving it time to sink in because back in the day it took me a long time to 'get' Air, the pioneering trio that comprised Threadgill, Fred Hopkins, and Steve McCall, even though for years now I'd be happy having all nine Air LPs as my desert-island discs, and even though I 'got' the Threadgill Sextett and his subsequent groups (Very Very Circus, Make a Move, and Zooid) immediately, with each new release. Compared to previous Zooid recordings, he's definitely taken a step forward with this one: as though you’re wandering through a large art installation without being sure what the point of entry is supposed to be but all the while sensing that there’s definitely some large-scale organizational principle and plan at work, even if it’s chaos theory rather than linear development. Henry Threadgill offers some tantalizing paradoxes here. First of all, there’s the admixture of notated music and improvisation – the aspect of Air that confounded me for so long – so that, as with Cecil Taylor’s music, the listener is never really completely sure whether a given soloist or any other musician is playing something annotated/composed or improvised, and on the basis of what suggestions or constraints from the composer. The 'epic' (his term, from the liner notes) gives an overall impression of hyperactivity, of having a restless, jittery quality perfect for a generation of people raised on Ritalin, Adderall, and Concerta; but on the other hand, lurking among the capriccios, with their lightning-quick flamenco-from-another-planet guitar runs and the cello somberly sawing away beneath it, there are indeed several medium-tempo, resolute, contrapuntal melodies, and quite a few slower, lyrical passages where all the musicians drop out leaving one unaccompanied instrument, or only one accompanying instrument. In fact it would be easy to describe this work as ‘exhilarating’ if it weren’t for this ADHD aspect. And it would be easy to sit back and enjoy the ever-changing kaleidoscope of textures if it weren’t for the insistently abstractual quality of the music. So one solution is to grant Henry Threadgill his uncompromising abstractuality and devote your attention to the evanescent textures, as though this work by a ‘jazz’ composer were actually an unacknowledged mixed-race offspring of the classical tradition, scored for the so-called “Pierrot ensemble”, q.v. Compare the instrumentation of Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître – i.e. alto flute, percussion, acoustic guitar, viola, xylorimba, and vibraphone – with that of this Threadgill offering – i.e. flute/bass flute/alto saxophone, drums/percussion, acoustic guitar, cello, and tuba/trombone. But then even with Threadgill’s resorting to the term “free serialism” to describe the method of this piece (in an interview with NPR), and even with In for a Penny and Le Marteau sans maître sharing the same mercurial-ephemeral quality, Boulez aims for stasis, a static energy, whereas Threadgill apparently can’t help but engineer a gleeful momentum into his musical epic, albeit in waves with pauses between them. Another paradoxical touch is that Threadgill identifies each of the longer sections as being devoted to solo space for one of the Zooid instrumentalists; but on the other hand, within any given section, other instruments also get solo space, and probably just as much as the instrument ostensibly being featured. For example, even though the concluding track is subtitled “For cello”, closure is achieved by a classy, valedictory statement from the trombone. But because of the way the entire piece is organized -- like a mosaic, so that it's best to listen to large portions at one go, to see the forest and not just the leaves -- it takes several listens to differentiate one section from another (e.g. “this part has the cello solo that I like”). And there are sections within sections, so that sometimes the music comes to a clear stop and then picks up with a different tempo and mood. What kind of mood? I’m never sure whether some of his melodic statements are too overly busy for me, or just busy enough to function as light, comedic soundtrack music; whether they’re inadvertently pompous, or satirically pompous, as though I’m not quite equipped with the vocabulary and short-term memory to figure out whether Professor Irwin Corey is serious or kidding. And because instruments are constantly dropping out and re-entering in new combinations, the listener is treated to oodles of variety, but denied the luxury of slipping into enjoyment of any one thing for the extra minute or so that it would take to be sated. And even though the instrumentation is virtually the same as on previous recordings of Zooid, I'm having a tough time relating the music to any previously existing genre, except for a chamber music of Henry Threadgill's own devising. After all, where else can you hear trio passages scored for drums, tuba, and acoustic guitar? The Henry Threadgill Sextett of the 1980s was clearly influenced by the New Orleans tradition, and this Zooid outing descends from Henry’s Sextett charts – but only via the most contrived argumentation could one make a case for this new music being connected to New Orleans jazz. Meanwhile, forget everything I said above and keep just this in mind: "In for a Penny, in for a Pound" would make great film music. Now go have a listen, imagine what kind of film, and decide which director it would be for. In conclusion, Geoff Dyer likes Henry Threadgill and so should you.
You can listen to the two introductory sections here: