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Henry Threadgill’s Zooid along with the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble performed the world premiere of “Pathways” to a sold-out room at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, on Jan. 11.
Threadgill dedicated the debut to saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who in 2017 established the Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble Fund at Oberlin. The performance also aimed to honor Cleveland native Robert Ward (1917–2013), who, like Threadgill, was an arranger and composer once stationed at the U.S. Army base at Fort Riley, Kansas, as well as a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Seamlessly performed by a small, versatile orchestra, the concert—Threadgill’s first Cleveland appearance since 1991—distilled the composer’s past as a member of Chicago’s AACM and as one-third of the ensemble Air during a daring, unpredictable and compelling performance that somehow simultaneously managed to remain accessible.
“It’s a thrill to see such a full house here tonight for music no one has ever heard,” Thomas Welsh—the museum’s director of performing arts, music and film—said, as he introduced Threadgill.
The composer positioned himself dead center, more engine than star of his ambitious piece, as the following 42 minutes eschewed any lag and contained very little ego.
“Pathways” came to life slowly, as strings and winds laid down a carpet for Threadgill’s flute and alto saxophone; Zooid trombonist Jose Davila and OCME bassist Matthew Frerck generated a rich thrum as the work took on mass and thickened in texture. Zooid drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, whose swing animated the whole piece, further stoked the music, until it collapsed into silence, ending what might have been considered the first movement.
OCME violinist Camille Vogley-Howes and violist Devin Cowan crafted a descending, teasing platform for Threadgill’s flute to disrupt, shifting the work’s feel. Interplay between Threadgill’s bass flute and OCME brass deepened the rustic feeling of the performance in a blend that evoked certain colorations German modernist composer Richard Strauss developed in tone poems like Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks and Don Juan. A section with a cabaret flair followed, led by Vogley-Howes’ gypsy violin, until Zooid guitarist Liberty Ellman began sparring with drummer Kavee, struggling to maintain dominance as the music grew frothy. Ellman remained on top, beating back the best efforts by the strings to storm the battlements as the section wound down. Threadgill’s bass flute drove the finale, which also featured Davila, a player of incredible breath control, who—reluctantly, it seemed—lowered the volume, eventually bringing “Pathways” to its conclusion. A standing ovation from 675 concertgoers greeted the intergenerational group as the composition ended, the assembled crowd perhaps recognizing that what it had witnessed was a testament to discipline, flexibility and open-mindedness.
Welsh, explaining CMA commissions in an email, said working with the Oberlin ensemble was a major feature of the performance series, suggesting the troupe might be one of the only chamber music groups able and willing to spend time understanding “Henry’s unique compositional style and improvisatory demands.”
“Henry’s system of writing is extremely unique and quite structured and organized,” said conductor Timothy Weiss, who received Threadgill’s score in mid-December and began rehearsing the ensemble Jan. 4 with the composer’s assistance. “To improvise in it takes time to understand how the atonal chromatic harmony operates. His music ranged from the completely notated to the fully improvised.”
Tyler Smith, a percussionist charged with vibraphone, triangle and wood-block parts during a “Pathways” interlude, drew particular praise from Threadgill: “He’s unbelievable, and he’s only a freshman.” DB
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