The most alluring things are the most difficult to describe. Alluring sound, for instance, is not easily defined, categorized, reacted to predictably, or understood. And then there is the question of music. I am not a musician and have no musical training. Therefore I have at my disposal a dearth of specialized knowledge. The technician’s tools—specific terminology and technical vocabulary; a predictable system for breaking things down into smaller, identifiable parts; a set of generally accepted labels for historical conventions, trends, and techniques – these are not at my disposal.
What I do have is impression, context, emotion, and layers of more or less complex associations. How can I explain my private reactions, my part of an unspoken dialogue with the music? How does one explain to others the appeal of finding the relief, the satisfaction, the kaleidoscopic microenvironment that reveals itself within the general scheme and texture of the whole-- the beguiling eddy along the banks of a long and swift-flowing stream? What about the recurring themes and places, the familiar things we can name that pop out here and there from the nameless swamp; the juxtaposition of the dramatic with the mundane, painful complexity walled off by the methodical slow progression of routine events, enough to occupy our attention but not our senses? They are not inured to a deeper struggle beneath the surface, over the wall or the hill, hidden beyond the harmonium welling up with dull pain from beneath the bass line. How to speak about the inevitable sadness of precision—the technically precise, measured, high-pitched notes of the flute progressing so slowly and perfectly as to be almost maniacal-- juxtaposed against the richness of diversity and dysfunction, the random clatter of disparate parts only generally coordinated—the almost spastic reverberations; strumming and plucking, wheezing and wailing paired with mournful droning; the compulsive trilling, tapping, and popping, all together racing along with bounding and rebounding electricity? How does one describe the allure? How to talk about the pith and sting of the salient, conscious moment—beautiful perhaps, but more likely pitiful, painful, absurd, sorrowful, ironic, or sadistic—rising up for a quick but unforgettable glimpse from the sea of general circumstance? The core is inexplicable, but out of a sense of obligation I will try to poke around the edges.
During the course of a decade of exploration there were many jazz artists I followed and enjoyed who were outside of the mainstream. Threadgill was not necessarily my favorite of the bunch, but a couple of things did set him apart. One was his far-reaching exploration into various arrangements, instrumentations, and blending of genres. Who else used, to such great effect, such unpredictable combinations of instruments: alto sax and flute with French horn, double electric guitars, double tubas, accordion, harpsichord, and multiple cellos? Need I mention his use of voice, hunting horns, harmonium and fretless bass, vibraphone and marimba? What about the unusual pieces he arranged for multiple acoustic guitars-- tracks that he didn’t even play on?
Another curious aspect of Threadgill’s allure was his idiosyncratic, unflappable independence—it seemed he never hesitated to pursue his own vision, no matter how offbeat. He always pushed the envelope, embracing odd lyrics and intriguing, cryptic titles such as The Mockingbird Sin; Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket; Award the Squadette; Jenkins Boys again, wish somebody die, it’s hot; Try some Ammonia; Burnt till Recognition; Around My Goose; and Hyla Crucifer… Silence of.
As for the music itself, on each disc there were the immediate pleasures, the sure-fire winners. Then there were the pieces that would grow on me over time. Finally there was always at least one track that was too dense, too shrill, too bizarre-- too far out there beyond my reach. These I would often skip right over on the first five or ten listenings, yet I respected Threadgill for continually pushing the envelope. He kept it wide open so all of the work could breathe and resonate.
This of course is an inadequate address of the question at hand, a cursory glimpse at superficial features rather than an attempt to enter the craft or the art. In the end I know I can’t do that—the music lives apart from you and me and apart from Threadgill for that matter. It’s better to let the music explain itself, better to consult it than to attempt to transcribe its message (as though it had one). It’s better, because impact is individual, and attempts to corral the power of experience into the strict confines of rational discussion most often result in caricature. The best I can do is offer a commentary on some of the particular parallel realities that the music makes available to me as I dive into the current.
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