Masterclass Notes: Henry Threadgill, Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer

A lot of "brilliant" in one place
This past weekend, an exciting two-part series took place in New York that I unfortunately missed out on (mostly): Very Very Threadgill, a celebration of the work of Henry Threadgill curated by Jason Moran. Fortunately, I was able to hear the master himself talk about some of his work in conversation with Moran and Brent Edwards, a scholar at Columbia University currently working with Threadgill on a forthcoming memoir. Some hastily jotted notes:

The Introduction of the Tuba

When asked about his use of the tuba in Sextett, Threadgill averred that he'd already been thinking about and working with the tuba for some time. He mentioned the significance of X75, one of Threadgill's working band that existed in Chicago in between the more famous Air and Sextett bands, which featured six bassists, four reeds, and occasionally a vocalist or percussionist. During that time, he thought a great deal about the difference between bass and tuba, particularly how a tuba can blend and "morph" into other sounds; he put it along the lines of how a tuba can "hide inside other sounds," which a bass just can't do in the same way. Threadgill noted his collaborations with tubist Bob Stewart that took place long before Very Very Circus came along.

Aesthetic of Implication

In discussing the relationship between Air and Sextett, Threadgill basically summarized the difference in terms of orchestration: Air, with only three instruments, required proportionally more work from each player to provide the fullness of sound that would come more easily if they just had more players. The constraint forced them to be imaginative with orchestration, and Threadgill drew on his inspirations to overcome these limitations. He name-checked Ahmad Jamal, saying, "I learned everything from Ahmad Jamal in terms of orchestration and color." If Air was implying far more than they played, then Sextett was the actualization of those implications via the larger instrumentation.

On a related note, Edwards asked Threadgill at one point about the notable lack of chordal instruments (aside from guitar) in his ensembles, which one could interpret as a possible "hostility toward chordal instruments" (jokingly said). To that, Threadgill responded, "My major influence was piano," but because pianos in New York in the time when he moved there were so poorly maintained, he thought it best to avoid them altogether. The audience laughed at this seemingly too-practical answer, but I thought Threadgill was being totally honest about it, which would make sense with his no-nonsense attitude to getting down with the basics of music.*

*When asked about his titles after being cited a long list of titles that included "Spotted Dick is Pudding," "Those Who Eat Cookies," "First Church of This," "Apricots on Their Wings," "Salute to the Enema Bandit," etc.,  Threadgill also got a big laugh when he replied, "Oh, I don't know. I never think I have to explain it to myself."


When asked about Very Very Circus, Threadgill drew attention to the literal notion of rings in a circus under the big top: multiple events happening coterminously in a single field of vision, separated by rings. He mentioned the songs "Breach of Protocol" and "Big Banana" specifically as songs where there are "two worlds going on separately and crossing." In "Breach of Protocol," the drums serve as the ringleader between the two, navigating between and existing in multiple sound worlds. 

Functionality, Hubkaphones, Misc.

As Threadgill was talking about the Society Situation Dance Band, which has never been commercially recorded, he mentioned other functional ensembles that he'd thought about in the past, including marching bands (through which he could pay a month's rent in Chicago with three marches a month!) and also funeral bands. Threadgill noted that his attempt to continue the marching band tradition after moving to New York simply fell apart economically, and also that he had thought about keeping a band to play music specially written for funeral services, since there was "a lot of work there" (it never panned out).

On the origins of the hubkaphone, Threadgill cited hearing groups of gong musicians while serving in Vietnam and trying to create an instrument to reproduce the sounds that he heard. He mentioned a notable early attempt using license plates, which was " a complete failure," and also a later innovation: the hubkawall, which doubled the number of hubcaps on the instrument.

In addition to hearing Henry Threadgill in conversation with Jason Moran and Brent Edwards, I had a chance to hear Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran in a co-masterclass right here at school. Some notes:

Jason's Analogies

There were plenty of memorable ones: hacking away in a dense forest to clear a space to contemplate what's around you (improvisation, leaving space, not allowing fear of peer ridicule to drive you to keep hacking without contemplating meaningfully). There was the deli meat-slicer analogy: as a pianist performed a rendition of "Just You, Just Me" with impeccably smooth touch, Jason suggested that rather than deliver the slices of ham as perfectly even on a platter, he instead cut them into chunks and bits—that he shape each note to invigorate the overall texture. Also, the floating in the water analogy: when playing, we're trying to give listeners the feeling that they're hanging out in the water, feeling waves and energy come and go and not enough to sweep us away, but enough to give us the sense of motion in place.

"Applications" Class in Music School

Jason powerfully described the lack of classes in arts outside of music at Manhattan School of Music during his time as a "disservice" to students. The key is to have access to creative work happening in other artistic fields and then to have a space in which to experiment and adapt those ideas, i.e., an "Applications" class. As he put it, it's far more common to find interdisciplinary happening than to find it being taught or encouraged in classrooms; that could and hopefully will change.


Vijay shared a number of approaches from his personal experience as an artist toward making satisfying, challenging music with others. One was an approach he'd taken with his trio: to choose to do arrangements of pieces that they knew going in that they could never hope to sound like. The next step is then to ask, "Why can't we sound like that? How can we creatively orchestrate what we have to do something inspired by this?"

When asked to describe the upcoming new trio album, he make a few attempts to talk about it and then just said, "If I can describe it, we wouldn't have had to make it," which rings so true about so many albums where reviews in DownBeat and JazzTimes basically make it clear that you know exactly what you're getting and nothing more, i.e., boring stuff.