Eight years past Up Past Two Lips, composer-saxophonist Henry Threadgill continues to pare down his carnival of sound into something that’s more than a sideshow but less the three-rings his Very Very Circus bands once performed. Composition, as always in Threadgill’s music, is important and one can’t help but think of Bartok reworking folk forms into modern, dissonant forms when listening to Threadgill’s contemporary spin on jazz marches and other rhythmic forms. While the six-piece band on Two Lips carried certain exotic touches with cello and oud, Volume I‘s quintet goes for straight-ahead orchestration. Yet its sound is anything but straight-ahead.
The best way to understand Threadgill’s approach is to consider the band’s name. A “zooid” is an organic cell or organized body that has independent movement within a living organism (think spermatozoa). Likewise, the individuals in Zooid both create Threadgill’s musical form and move inside it. The shape may come from the rhythm section as it does in “To undertake my corners open,” with fluttering rhythm guitar, Elliot Humberto Kavee’s twittering drums and two-steps-forward-one-step-back bass. Or it may go through a sort of osmosis, as in “White Wednesday off the wall,” with its pensive introduction stirred by an awakening flute and guitar unison.
Once a tune gets moving, the soloists take over . Liberty Ellman’s guitar is the most pensive instrument in the lineup, taking time to let his improv evolve into something that creationists wouldn’t have predicted. Bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi turns from support to being supported with wooden flute edging him on in the middle of “White Wednesday.”Jose Davila who doubles on trombone and tuba is the most aggressive of the soloists, pushing hard on the musical mebrane as if to split it in two.
Threadgill brings a toothier edge to his play here than his work of a decade ago. The sleeker lineup requires it and there’s a file-rough tone to his alto phrasing, a honed sharpness to his flute. His solos are much like the titles he gives his songs (“Mirror mirror the verb”). There’s identifiable phrasing but no easy meaning to be had; lots of suggestions to what to think, but nothing concrete.
Given all that, the music has a recognizable, natural beauty. Much of that comes from the interplay, more symbiosis than survival of the fittest. But form is the binding factor and Threadgill’s composing skills are as smart and fluid as they’ve ever been. When the group perks up to procreate together, as it does on “Sap,” it gets your juices flowing. The more we listen, the more we hope for off-spring (indeed, Volume II is scheduled for release sometime this year)–Cabbage Rabbit