It was nearly twenty years ago, 1993, and most people were still buying their music through the "record store," a quaint concept now. I walked into a Pasadena shop and was immediately struck by the jazz album playing on the store's system. There was an alto sax player of great skill, and electric guitarists and a drummer, all familiar to a significant degree, but there was also tubas, and African-sounding percussion and a strange, ethereal, otherworldly female vocalist, and some men singing what sounded like Portuguese.
When I walked up to the counter and asked what the record was, I was told it was Henry Threadgill, a name I had never heard before and that it was his new recording, Too Much Sugar for a Dime. Without hesitating, I inquired as to whether there were copies of the album for sale and the reply was that the only one was that being played, but that I could have it for $10. Sold!
Looking over the case and the cover art, there was the name of the label, Axiom and of co-producer and label founder Bill Laswell. As I was three years in to a method of buying several albums at a time in the general genres of rock, jazz, hip hop, classical, world, and reggae, I knew both quite well from the purchase of several of the label's world music recordings, as well as some of its other releases, like the fantastic 1991 Sonny Sharrock album, Ask the Ages, featured here recently. I soon learned that Threadgill came from the ferment of Chicago's 1960s jazz scene with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which included Richard Muhal Abrams, Anthony Braxton (also to be featured here quite soon), and the Art Ensemble of Chicago (ditto.)
Threadgill's style of composing is utterly distinctive and he has always favored instrumentation that is unusual harmonically, as well as sonically. His group at the time, Very Very Circus, featured a French horn player, two electric guitarists, a drummer and two tuba players, but no bassist. On two more orchestral pieces, "In Touch" and "Better Wrapped/Better Unrapped," there was an additional tuba, another drummer, three violinists (one of whom played the oud, this being the Simon Shaheen, featured here with his remarkable Taqasim duet with Ali Jihad Racy not long ago, and another being the underappreciated Leroy Jenkins), Brazilian percussionists (who also do their singing on the latter), and, on the former, two vocalists, one singing lyrics and the other vocalizing ethereally.
But, it was the opening track, "Little Pocket Size Demons," that I'd been blown away by when I walked into that record store and is still a stunning piece, with Threadgill's agile, jagged soloing complemented by the sonic fireworks of Masujaa and Brandon Ross on electric guitarists. The great drummer Gene Lake holds the beat down excellently throughout the record. Ross also deserves notice for his acoustic guitar work on "Too Much Sugar," by far the briefest of the six pieces on this very eclectic, off-beat, but entrancing album.
Since this amazing and welcome discovery, I've picked up several more of these great composer's albums and have enjoyed them all, but Too Much Sugar for a Dime is still the favorite. As Threadgill states in his abstract poetic liner notes:
These great musicians working
together so, was some kind of Shangri-la
or better, on this side.
just wonderful — to get the
expected and unexpected.
. . . Very (Sigh) Now it's just pigeon
Though I'm not sure what that last phrase means.
Henry Threadgill: Too Much Sugar for a Dime (Axiom Records, 1993)
1. Little Pocket Size Demons 10:49
2. In Touch 8:49
3. Paper Toilet 5:39
4. Better Wrapped/Better Unrapped 13:05
5. Too Much Sugar 2:58
6. Try Some Ammonia 12:23