Fresh off a Pulitzer prize win for his 2015 album In For a Penny, In For a Pound, legacy composer Henry Threadgill has returned with a less expansive work rife with driving swing and collective improvisation in Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. Threadgill is no newcomer to the jazz world, which works both for and against him on this album. In every capacity, this album comes from a place of experience, the vivid ensemble sound spawned from a lifetime of pulling sounds from surrounding musicians. The velvety production works for each musician’s instrumental tone in a manner that only true masters of craft can achieve. On the other hand, experience can sometimes be a hindrance to nuance and discovery. It is clear that Threadgill is committed to a particular aesthetic and although the music here is clearly well put together, it certainly comes within the same relative space as his last work with average instrumental efforts making for a work lacking the shock factor of most momentous musical works. In no way does the work take away from Threadgill’s namesake and in no way is the album poorly accomplished, however, the question of career importance must certainly be raised.
The album is constructed in a somewhat symmetrical format with parts one and three being long tracks that shed light on each member of the ensemble with lots of room for collective improvisation and changes in direction. On the two parts that follow each of these tracks, Threadgill gives smaller cells within the ensemble brief open improvisational stints, contrasting the hefty, full sound of the long works. The band operates extraordinarily well as a single entity with the main focus of each piece in constant flux. Tuba player Jose Devila becomes one of the first soloists on the album on “Part One” after the piano introduction. Devila’s solo diminishes from its climax slowly with saxophone player Roman Filiu taking over the reigns as Devila shifts to a walking bass role. The next soloist then quickly takes Filiu’s place coming in just before Filiu’s final words. All of these smoothed over transitions make for a well-balanced experience with no single soloist taking too much of the attention. Also, the soloists seem to stick around as the piece moves forward building the sonic space into a heavy handed conception.
When it comes to incorporating swing into a relatively avant-garde rhythmic approach, Threadgill stands as one of today’s best, his albums remaining committed to jazz roots with room for his selected companions to stretch the space towards more primal breaking points. Drummer Craig Weinrib begins with a steady hand on the cymbols, light work on the rest of the kit complementing the conservative time keeping. As the tracks gain weight Weinrib really digs in with fills blurring the borders between each bar creating a pulsating jazz groove. Despite bending the swing formula over the course of each track, the album lacks a certain shock factor. Perhaps this is a by-product of the collective playing style but, the players do not reach screaming breaks in their sound, remaining conservatively attached to their lines throughout each solo. Also, free playing does not enter the occasion consistently, Threadgill aiming for a somewhat typical contemporary large jazz combo sound.
Old Locks and Irregular Verbs is a decent jazz record, but it does not seem to be a longstanding edition to the catalog, serving more as an extension of Threadgill’s work from last year. Perhaps more risks taken by the soloists as well as more new ideas in the compositions could have separated the record from the pack a bit more. Nonetheless, Henry Threadgill is a band leader that is never going to fully disappoint, his band still delivering an exceptional overall performance.
More of what we expect from Henry Threadgill. 6.5/10