Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus Plus

Chicago Jazz Festival, September 2

Eleven years ago Ornette Coleman and his band Prime Time headlined one night of the Chicago Jazz Festival and attacked a largely unprepared audience with infectious polyrhythms and five dense lines of simultaneous melody. The weak-hearted fled. Three years later the all-improvised big band Globe Unity Orchestra preceded the closing set by hard-bop icons Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers with concurrent blasts of instantaneously composed harmonics and deliciously fractured melodic sophistication. An even more dramatic mass exodus occurred. Last weekend Henry Threadgill Very Very Circus headlined Saturday’s bill with a bubbling hot brew of double tubas and guitars, a French horn, drums, and the leader’s tangy alto sax and pungent flute, delivering a feast of multipronged melody and delicate harmonic interaction. By and large the crowd remained seated.

Threadgill was an early member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (he played in Sunday’s reunion of the Muhal Richard Abrams Experimental Band, ostensibly the first AACM group), and perhaps no one has adopted the organization’s motto, “From the ancient to the future,” with as much vehemence as he has. His phenomenal unit Air, formed in 1971 with bassist Fred Hopkins and the late drummer Steve McCall, virtually redefined the pianoless trio, audaciously revamping classics by Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton and placing them side by side with a large body of originals. The group used the format to focus on structural ingenuity, developing and releasing tension, and complex multilinear exposition rather than as a vehicle for loose blowing. Threadgill was also toying with unusual forms on his own. In 1979 he released the solo album X-75 Volume 1, boldly pairing a quartet of reed instruments with the same number of bassists.

For most of the 80s Threadgill performed with the mighty Henry Threadgill Sextet–which in keeping with the leader’s unusual sense of humor was actually a seven-member combo, the two drummers counting as a single participant. The outfit, consisting of bass, cello, a pair of drummers, trumpet, trombone, and the leader’s alto and flute, gave Threadgill’s sublime composing and arranging skills an opportunity to coalesce into a gorgeous, economic reality that caused many a critic to place him on a continuum with Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. For the most part the band’s instrumentation was redolent of jazz tradition, but Threadgill’s writing and execution employed increasingly diverse influences, including gospel, blues, marches, ragtime, and R & B as well as some Latin and European sensibilities. At the end of the decade, after six albums with the group, Threadgill decided to move on.

Initial reaction to Very Very Circus focused on the circuslike combination of a pair of tubas and electric guitars, but the precision of Threadgill’s music quickly squelched any fear that the instrumentation was a gimmick. It became obvious that every instrument had a real function. While the group’s 1991 debut Spirit of Nuff…Nuff (Black Saint) didn’t feature a convincing alignment of writing and performance, there was clearly some serious shit going down. Subsequent albums have witnessed Very Very Circus taking flight.

Threadgill favors straight narrative. Whereas a standard jazz piece will state a theme, build on it with a series of independent solos, and restate it for closure, his tunes open quietly and unfold slowly, usually building toward a scintillating multilinear climax/conclusion. His storytelling sucks the listener in, tossing out a line and then elaborating on it until there are suddenly three or more voices simultaneously riffing on it or unraveling it, commenting on the action and building toward resolution.

Threadgill is a true renaissance man, as evidenced by his music’s daring architecture, the quirky, theatrical titles he chooses–“Jenkins Boys Again, Wish Somebody Die, It’s Hot” and “Dirty in the Right Places,” for example–and the strangely beautiful, oblique poetry that fills the CD booklets. Yet for all of the influences at work, Threadgill’s music sounds like nothing you’ve heard before.

Last Saturday Very Very Circus opened with “Little Pocket Size Demons” but didn’t give a full-blown reading of the tune’s elaborate theme until close to the triumphant, soaring conclusion. Rife with spine-tingling counterpoint, Threadgill’s music exploits subtle interplay. Indeed, this tune opened with the guitars of Brandon Ross, who favors a contemporary, effects-heavy sound, and Ed Cherry, whose hollow-body guitar produces a cleaner, ringing attack. The pair wove elegant embellishments and quick-fingered interjections into simple lines. The structure became more complex with the entrance of Edwin Rodriguez and Jose Davila’s tubas, which, suggesting a flashback to classic jazz, provided the bass lines for the unit and contributed to the contrapuntal melody and harmony with full-bodied, rubbery blasts. These are no oompah-oompah hacks. Pheeroan AkLaff’s drumming added propulsion with its dazzling array of fills and accents. Threadgill’s alto finally joined the fray, thickening the melodic action with tension and texture. At this juncture Cherry delivered a solo, speckled with Wes Montgomery’s octave tricks, that lent an earthy bluesiness to a tune seemingly far removed from the form. Mark Taylor’s sleek French horn was the last to join in. At that point one might expect things to rip open, but the group resolved the tune with a blasting, passionate exposition, dotted with solo interjections, that ebbed into silence.

Accordion player Tony Cedras and vocalist Sentienla Toy joined the group for a few tunes–an addition that heightened Threadgill’s dramatic palette and showcased his inclusivity. Particularly striking was their reading of “Hyla Crucifer…Silence Of.” Ross delivered piquant flamenco-esque arpeggios on a tiny soprano guitar while the tubas produced mournful, pulsing drones and Cedras’s accordion oozed long, melancholy lines reminscent of some mythical French open-air cafe. The sadness of the waltz became more provocative and beautiful when Taylor’s elegant, arching lines followed Toy’s sultry singing. The highly lyrical, off-kilter torch song climaxed with an attack of jarring sound before dissolving into a gentle puff. AkLaff opened “Vivjanrondirkski” with dense, fragmented statements that grew into a blooming shower of polyrhythmic narrative and concluded in a groove that served as an opening for the rest of the group.

Since the bebop revolution, jazz, for the most part, has been a soloist’s music, and improvisation skills have become the sole measure of a jazzer’s worth. Threadgill’s unusual interest in ensemble playing has precedents in Ellington’s complex scoring, the staggering group improvisations that laced the joyous romps of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and symphonic music. He’s an exceedingly democratic leader, giving himself no more time in the solo spotlight than anyone else.

Most jazz listeners hone in on the soloist, perhaps occasionally catching a drummer’s fill or the pianist’s shadowing. The challenge and thrill of listening to Very Very Circus come from the abundance of ideas and the flurry of simultaneous action. With Very Very Circus it’s tough to figure out where to point your ears because there’s so much to hear. Rather than getting a firm grasp on a single solo line, the listener can swim in a multitude of fascinating voices, knowing that there’s always another surprise on its way. The complexity of Threadgill’s music, however, is offset by affecting emotionalism, copious melodicism, and infectious rhythms. Rarely has a balance been so sophisticated, so satisfying, and so much fun.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.