Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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1998 Texaco New York Jazz Festival

Sashaying in Your Head

The Henry Threadgill moment woven into my ganglia is an epic r&b-soaked solo he sluiced on Chicago blues pianist Left Hand Frank in '81 or so. And the time I heard the Ellington band live (after Duke had passed, with son Mercer conducting who knows who), I could have danced all night. So when Threadgill dubbed his Texaco project the Society Situation Dance Band, these two memories coalesced into a hope that I knew in my heart was metaphorical. People actually dancing? At an avant-garde jazz festival? Who with, their chairs?

If you're expecting a punch line, "their chairs" will have to do. Like my hope, dance is a metaphor in Threadgill's world--for song structures and stated beats, basically--as opener Butch Morris and his 15-piece Holy Ghost demonstrated with an articulated din that ebbed and flowed and built and collapsed with occasional solos for 40 minutes. On the best riff I scoped the leader's hand signals: baton vertical, restate riff (yay!); baton horizontal, cut riff (aw!); baton zigzag, fuck with riff (chinga-buzz-chinga-splat-chinga-changa-arghh!). At 8:36, 10 minutes into a louder second piece that had several wimps covering their ears, I wrote: "patience diminishing." At 8:37, the music stopped. Morris is no stupe.

I've endured countless more tedious bands playing more "accessible" music. But Threadgill's straighter 18-piece--seven horns, five strings, accordion, tuba, electric guitar and bass, traps, congas--benefited from Morris's avant-garde setup. Threadgill did not play: he was the conductor and, crucially, the composer, as was clear from an engagingly complex opener in which saxes called and strings responded and even the soaring guitar solo sounded written. The mood shifted on each of five selections: French film-noir theme, blues featuring vocalist Amina Claudine Myers (did that refrain really go "Everybody will hang by the leg"?), a torched-up version of (Cole Porter's) "In the Still of the Night" muddled by the writing underneath, and a vaguely Dirty Dozen-ish funk-on-the-four finale (tuba can really inflect a groove). All were lively if not, with their shifting time signatures, literally danceable. A hopeful colleague claims he spied some movement in back, but only the solos really got the crowd going. On the blues, violinist Charles Burnham (also a Morris standout) inspired the night's first screaming shit-fit, but the star turns went to Threadgill's brother saxmen: John Stubblefield hewed to theme early in the set but treated Porter less reverently, Rolando Briseno avoided sheets-of-sound shtick on a soprano cameo, and Booker T. Williams sent everybody home happy by shrieking, honking, and funking to a showboat climax. Stubblefield was so happy that he sashayed and twitched his hips as the rest of the band filed off.

Village Voice, June 23, 1998