30. Something old, something new

Chicago Breakdown. Air. From 80° Below ’82 (1982)

It’s usual to describe Air as a “free jazz” trio. This track shows how unhelpful the term is – unless it simply means being free to do whatever feels right. But that’s just jazz, really.

True, they did explore some pretty unusual sounds – I recall seeing Henry Threadgill’s hubcaphone on stage in London some time in the 1980s. But this magnificent trio were really another embodiment of the formulation adopted by the better known AACM-derived ensemble The Art Ensemble of Chicago, “great black music, ancient to the future”.

Not that ancient in this case. The opening track on this wonderful LP is a reinvention of a Jelly Roll Morton tune. The trio had offered some Morton before – Air Lore from three years earlier included their takes on King Porter Stomp and Buddy Bolden’s Blues, which they took in after an exploration of ragtime in the shape of Scott Joplin. With hindsight, it presages one feature of Threadgill’s future work – music that is closest to jazz, but where the composer’s role is paramount.

At the time, it was just a glorious rediscovery of a brilliant piece. The ferocious, bouncing swing of Fred Hopkins’ bass and Steve McCall’s matchless sense of dynamics – most of the time sticking to brushes -give Morton’s tune the rhythmic energy it deserves. Threadgill’s scorching alto – more prominent in the trio than in much of his later work – slips in and out of playing the original line as the composer envisaged and offering more contemporary commentary on its possibilities.

It’s a brilliant performance, and not like anything else I can think of at the time. Revisiting early jazz as a starting point for this kind of freewheeling exuberance is something plenty of people do now – though rarely as well as this. But the freshness these players imparted to Morton’s tune is great to hear. This treatment doesn’t supersede classic versions by, say, Louis Armstrong – who had his own kind of freedom – but the rhythmic flexibility and interactive playfulness of the modern players does give it a dimension that you have to consciously put aside to appreciate the earlier realisations properly. And that bass solo certainly isn’t like anything you could have heard in Morton’s day.

(Incidentally, not all late 20th century versions have this quality. I just found this one by The Swingle Singers, and now really wish I hadn’t…)

Looking back, it remains a favourite Air track, and one of the bits of Threadgill I always come back to. It sits well among the four tracks here as, in one of the early indications of what a formidable composer he would become, the other three are originals that sound amazingly compatible with this opener.

The stripped down sound of Air also lets you hear what a great player Threadgill is. I can’t get enough of his later work – beginning with the sextet that, along with David Murray’s octet (originally also featuring Threadgill and McCall), was for me the most interesting small group of the 1980s. But he’s got more and more devoted to thicker textures, and music with more complex layers. A “head, solos; head” routine is about as far from his concept as you can get. It was salutary to learn from a later interview (I think with Ethan Iverson) that one reason the two drummers in the sextet sounded so fabulous was that Threadgill wrote out separate complete parts for each lf them. Like this classic track, which has recognisable elements of Chicago Breakdown, especially in the bass, but also so much more.

Later works deepen that trend, and have the same attention to detail, but one hears, if anything, even less of the composer’s own horn.

So this one will stay on the list of tracks I keep by me for the beauty of the alto playing, for exploiting a great bass and drums pairing to reaffirm that great jazz can be good time music (and for making that sound deceptively easy), and – in hindsight – as one important composer’s tribute to another.

Why the No 30? This is one of a series running (in no particular order) through 2021. I explain a bit what it’s doing here.

There’s a cumulative playlist of all the ones that can be found on Spotify (with that other Threadgill tune this week – which incidentally the spotify algorithm had already suggested as music in the right area: I feel the thing has got me squarely in its sights now).

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