Sunday, November 20, 2011

Henry Threadgill Zooid + John Escreet - London Jazz Festival 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London. Saturday 19th November 2011.

John Escreet is a New York based pianist originating from the northerly English environs of Doncaster. It's tempting to think these cultural juxtapositions are reflected in his music, as he quietly drew us into his short set, using some carefully chosen sparse bleak long notes, that slowly developed into angst ridden arpeggio flourishes. From here, we knew where this was going, Escreet attacking the keys to deliver rapid fire dense note clusters. Following a sort-of twisted psychotic rag, Escreet finally sweetened the harmony, but even then, expected resolutions were frequently side-stepped. It's difficult material, but Escreet's precision and conviction make it very engaging.

Without the fluid central groove of Elliot Kavee’s brilliant drumming, the relentless harmonic tension generated by Henry Threadgill’s ‘Zooid’ would have overwhelmed most brains used to a least the odd chord resolution here and there. The icy solo cello introductions from Christopher Hoffman were the most effective element, managing to convey strong statements within the constraints of Threadgill’s interval block system. Bass player Stomu Takeishi was engaging to watch, but unfortunately the instrument was too loud in the mix for the most part. The trombone and tuba of Jose Davila, and the guitar of Liberty Ellman played more of a supporting role, at least sound mix wise, but both managed to shine when given enough harmonic space to get their lines through. Threadgill mainly took on the role of overseer, but his distinctive contributions on alto sax and bass flute really added to the dynamic, so it would have been good if he’d taken more of a playing role.

The Zooid experience is exhausting, albeit in many ways worthwhile. I can’t deny that at times, my ear begged for a solid funky bass line to lock in with the gorgeous drumming. I do also wonder that, although Threadgill’s interval block serialism is an interesting original approach, its constraints give rise to the same sort of difficulties Steve Reich had with Schoenberg’s twelve tone serialism, in that it’s difficult to “sneak in some harmony”. I suspect I’ll continue to muse on this one.

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