Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Henry Threadgill: Rag, Bush and All

The great Henry Threadgill has just been awarded a Pulitzer Prize for music for his recent album In for a Penny, In for a Pound.  Because this blogger doesn't yet have that album, recognition of Threadgill's achievement is commemorated with the remarkable early 1989 release, Rag, Bush and All.  This album was purchased not long after the masterful

The record is filled with Threadgill's typically complex, multi-layered harmonic sense, shifting time and compelling melodies. It also features combinations of instruments that are fascinating contrasts in their sonic pallettes, including the leader's alto in contrast with the trumpet and fluegelhorn of Ted Daniels and then the leader's bass flute played off of Bill Lowe's bass trombone.  Bassist Fred Hopkins, a longtime member with Threadgill in the amazing trio AIR, has a cellist counterpart in Deidre Murray.   Finally, there are two drummers, Newman Baker and Reggie Nicholson.

"Off the Rag" is a wild ride, with its theme stated at the beginning, as expected, but then restated in various ways with differing groupings of instrumentation throughout the nearly 13-minute piece.  The cello and bass combination, the various horns, and the dual percussion always provides interesting excursions into sound.  This track is definitely one of the more notable in Threadgill's long career.

"The Devil is on the Loose and Dancin' With a Monkey" has a fine solo by Hopkins, as well as a short and bright one by Daniels on trumpet.  The rhythm is kept moving by the two drummers and Hopkins and Murray.  Threadgill's playful melody is nicely accented by the other horns.

"Gift" starts off quietly with cymbals played as if windchimes softly moved by a breeze.  The horns come in with a mounful and contemplative theme with Daniels taking a lead role in generating high-pitched and plaintive sounds above the others with a minimal percussive accompaniment.  Threadgill's ghostly bass flute then takes over for a time before the ensemble quietly takes the tune to a conclusion.

"Sweet Holy Rag" has another playful opening melodic statement, almost like something from early 20th century popular music, led by Murray's cello and the horns accompanying.  Hopkins plays a catchy bass figure with the drummers rumbling along in sync.  Then, the horns generate a separate theme, swirling and climbing until Threadgill's flute is developed with a kind of lumbering rhythm.  Again, complexity in time, offbeat instrumental linkages and characteristically unusual melodic themes mark this tune.  Threadgill's solo from about three minutes is the centerpiece of the song and is very soulful with his bandmates in counterpoint.  Daniels takes an excellent solo about eight minutes or so in and is followed brilliantly by Hopkins and Baker.

Rag, Bush and All is a stunning recording among many in the long, fruitful career of one of jazz's great composers and bandleaders, who always surprises with his use of unusual instrumental combinations, eclectic harmonic devices, and melodies and themes that are simply Threadgillian.  His receiving the Pulitzer Prize this year is recognition of Threadgill's singular talent.

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