Henry Threadgill’s Zooid moves as a writhing mass, each instrument straining in different melodic directions, held together by a centripetal rhythmic force. Each tune sounds ready to break down into free-form chaos, but an internal logic gradually reveals itself, and the band locks into place. This Brings Us To, Volume II was culled from the same 2008 recording session as last year’s Volume I, with the same ferocious band: Threadgill on flute and alto sax, Liberty Ellman (who also produced both albums) on acoustic guitar, Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums.
Threadgill’s pieces are dense blocks filigreed with motions toward escape, mostly provided by Ellman’s pellucid nylon strings, which offer insistent counterpoint to the leader’s jagged, conversational lines. This tension between control and freedom is established through Threadgill’s intricate compositions, which are based on a series of interval blocks which are assigned to each band member. Ellman described it to Martin Johnson of the Wall Street Journal as “a system for developing harmony and counterpoint from a set of intervals that originate in chord analysis.” Each instrument is free to improvise melodies and push against the rest of the band. For this kind of experiment, the band’s name is well chosen. A zooid is “any organic body or cell capable of spontaneous movement and of an existence more or less apart from or independent of the parent organism.” Each band member is encouraged to explore spontaneous movement under the aegis of the parent organism (Threadgill’s composition).
The process creates a magnificent tension which rewards close listening. I’ve been spinning this CD nonstop since its release in October and am still discovering inspired bits of invention and surprising confrontations. Towards the end of “Lying Eyes,” Threadgill floats above the roiling pulse set up by Kavee and Takeishi, fluttering in and around Ellman’s soft-stated, skittish theme. Their lines start to push and pull against each other, Threadgill’s flurries mocked by Ellman’s sparse, softly plucked replies. Their interaction has a catalytic effect, leading Threadgill to eschew improvising and lock into a closing phrase with Davila’s trombone, an admission of defeat and a triumph of logic.
It’s Davila’s tuba that has the calming effect in “Extremely Sweet William,” a warm percussive tone to soak up Ellman’s more aggressive fractured figures. It’s a virtuoso display by the guitarist, whose lines slowly extend until they’re taken up by Threadgill with frantic excitement. All the while, Davila presses forward with the melodic fragments, a soft carpet for Ellman and Threadgill’s exertions to land on. It all ends in a soaring section of controlled chaos that stops on a dime.
Each of the album’s five pieces is a master class in misdirection, a shifty contraption that can reconfigure itself mid-phrase. As you can never see the same river twice, as the current is constantly changing, it’s impossible to listen to a Zooid tune the same way more than once. The compositions are too dense and the musicians too unpredictable for me to do anything other than stick my ear closer to the speaker and wait for something new to emerge.
—R. Emmet Sweeney