Jazz Appreciation Month 2015, I: Henry Threadgill on "Weeping Willow Rag"

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Every weekday this month I'll be posting new content in observance of Jazz Appreciation Month (J.A.M.), so-designated by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History beginning in 2001. International Jazz Day, so-designated by UNESCO in partnership with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, is on the last day of April, the 30th; it was first celebrated in 2012. Debating the relative merits of designating specific days or months for celebrating heritages, traditions, and the like aside, Jazz Appreciation Month is at the very least an excuse to dig into some material that I've been interested in for a while on the blog. 

Here's the first installment: Henry Threadgill playing "Weeping Willow Rag" with Air, 1979. Tomorrow's will feature Billy Hart's favorite John Coltrane bootleg.

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Scott Joplin passed away on this day 98 years ago, just shy of his 50th birthday (exact date disputed and unknown). He published "Weeping Willow Rag: A Ragtime Two Step" in 1903 during the prime of his career when he lived in St. Louis and composed hits like "The Entertainer." 

In 1979, Air, the chordless trio with saxophonist Henry Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins, and drummer Steve McCall, recorded a curious album entitled Air Lore (currently $6.99 on Amazon), which featured ragtime compositions by Jelly Roll Morton and Joplin as well as rag-inspired original compositions. Much has been written on this band, which explored and exploded carefully designed compositions to exploit the sonic possibilities of the trio format. It's ironic that this record continues to be among their best-known, rather than more characteristic records like Air Song and Air Raid, but it's undeniable that Air Lore presents some a bit more familiar and therefore accessible with all of these ragtime arrangements. It's sort of an impossible project: how do you adapt these piano-centric compositions to a chordless set-up with drums? This creative problem, like all worthy creative challenges, bears at the very least interesting results: the music is ebullient, freewheeling if often sloppy, but always fresh.

I first heard about this record reading Ethan Iverson's Do The Math, where he shares his ambivalence about this particular effort:
Air remains best known not for Air Time, but for their 1979 “hit record” Air Lore, a collection of early jazz like Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin. This move towards the old was universally praised by jazz critics at the time, and more recently some have pointed towards Air Lore as “What Wynton tried to do, but earlier and better.” (It is interesting to note how well the band dresses for the photo on Air Lore, even down to listing wardrobe and shoes by designer. This, more than the actual music, is what foreshadows the Young Lions!) I want to love Air Lore, too. But I’m just not sure about Steve McCall here. Clunky, sloppy drumming when played with great time is one of the great pleasures, but I’m not sure if McCall’s time is quite good enough to pull it off. I don’t think it’s amateurish, exactly... but I do think that I should not have to wonder about it. Certain modernistic jazz players can be successful not caring that much about the beat while still playing the beat. Paul Bley, Richard Davis, and others somehow make this work. But in Jelly Roll Morton? There is no early jazz that doesn’t treat the beat as a life-or-death matter. If Air Lore does really work (I can’t concede that today, but I’ll keep listening) it works as a naive, “directly channeled from the masters” palimpsest, not as an accurate, learned tribute.
The record certainly isn't polished and isn't studied in the details as Wynton Marsalis and co. would present the music, but it's still beautiful music that's worth listening to for ideas as to how old forms can be adapted for contemporary settings. Threadgill sounds great as always, and on "Weeping Willow Rag" he blows over the A strain and blows over the trio section before taking it out. 

This is the longest cut on the record with a slick, unusual arrangement: it starts with an extended solo drum statement before Threadgill and Hopkins enter on the A strain, features a solo over the B strain, then an extended unaccompanied bass solo before Threadgill and McCall re-enter in a new tempo for the trio, after which is a saxophone solo over the final strain before the last strain melody is played—first regularly, then with a double-time feel underneath until the final four bars revert to regular time. It's quite an arrangement. Check it out:
Henry Threadgill on "Weeping Willow Rag" (Air Lore) - Page 1

Henry Threadgill on "Weeping Willow Rag" (Air Lore) - Page 2

Henry Threadgill on "Weeping Willow Rag" (Air Lore) - Page 3


  1. NIce transcription thanks for that

    Not sure about the strain length it doesn't seem to match the one on the recording, maybe the rhythm section drops a few bars, have you played this on sax or any other instrument ?


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