If music were mandatory, everyone would be required to listen to Henry Threadgill’s music at least once or see him perform live. The saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist and composer finds convention in the unconventional.
Only three jazz musicians have won a Pulitzer Prize—Ornette Coleman, Wynton Marsalis, in 2016 Threadgill joined the Pulitzer recipients, when he was honored for “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” (Pi Recordings), the latest album with the iconic sextet Zooid (Threadgill on alto saxophone, flute and bass flute on each piece, Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums and Stomu Takeishi on bass guitar).
March 8 (tonight) the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (58 W. 129th St.) presents its series “Harlem Speaks,” with Threadgill the bandleader and original member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
He will discuss his distinctive approach to instrumentation and orientation to musical styles that reflects his lasting imprint with the AACM. Author, bandleader and arranger Greg Tate will host this event (7 p.m.-9 p.m.).
At the age of 17 Threadgill joined the Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band, which later expanded into the AACM, a fountain of musical explorers.
His 1970s trio, Artists in Residence, reimagined ragtime without the piano, a lot like dropping the electric guitar from rock. In the 1990s, his Very Very Circus stepped further to the edge with two electric guitars, two tubas, a trombone/French horn, drums and his alto sax and flute, with frequent add-ons.
Threadgill’s consistent exploratory approaches to composing and improvising led to Zooid. Since 2000, Zooid has been his primary channel for recording and performing. Suggested donation for this event is $10.
The Apollo Theater’s “Amateur Night” has been a staple in the Black cultural capital of the world since its 1934 inception. The Harlem theater stage became a mecca for aspiring performers, long before hype of “American Idol” or “The Voice.”
Legendary contestants who won “Amateur Night at the Apollo” and established it as an incubator for Black talent include Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, The Isley Brothers, Luther Vandross and keyboardist Matthew Whitaker.
Amateur Night has become a destination for inspired performers from around the world. Recently, Chihiro Watanabe, the 13-year-old Japanese singer/pianist made the 14-hour flight from Tokyo with her mother and aunt to make her mark at the renowned competition.
Competing in the adolescent division, Watanabe played as she sang a rousing version of “Tomorrow” from the Broadway play “Annie.” The competition was very tight and although her effort was met with a thunderous audience response that tipped the applause-o-meter over 90, she was edged out by a young dancing salsa couple’s polished steps infused with super-speed spins and turns.
Watanabe was disappointed but with such a promising performance and practice, she will only get better. She was eager to return to Tokyo so she could begin practicing. With the assistance of an interpreter, she said, “I enjoyed playing at the Apollo and the audience had a lot of energy.”
The following evening, she performed on Open Mic Night at the popular Sugar Bar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, owned by Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford until his passing. The popular duo pinned such Motown hits as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
Watanabe was in good company, performing with noted singer Ron Grant. She offered a heartfelt rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Ben.”
The next day she was at the Harlem School of the Arts, where she met the young (age 17) pianist, organist, drummer, composer and arranger Matthew Whitaker, a former student at HSA.
The two young pianists talked about Watanabe’s playing at the Apollo, and Whitaker, who won the competition at age 9, mentioned she can try again next year.
They played duo piano, and Watanabe offered her version of “Ben.” Whitaker ran through a solo that encompassed jazz, classical and blues. Jazz was new to Watanabe, but Whitaker happily explained it and ran off a few of his favorite jazz musicians, such as Art Tatum, Mulgrew Miller and Oscar Peterson.
Watanabe’s favorite performers include Stevie Wonder, the Carpenters, The Beatles and Michael Jackson. Whitaker spoke about his experience at HSA and all the fun he has touring around the world, including Japan.
The fact that they are both sightless had nothing to do with the joyous time they spent together talking, playing music and exchanging ideas.
Saturday morning, Watanabe had an early interview at City College’s radio station, WHCR-FM, with Daa’iya Sanusi the host of the morning jazz program “Gardens of Tranquility and Contemplation.”
The young pianist couldn’t have come at a better time. It was Sanusi’s annual “Breakfast with the Masters,” which gave Watanabe a unique opportunity to meet jazz masters Kenny Barron, Jimmy Owens, Reggie Workman, Bertha Hope and bassist/composer Mimi Jones.
Since her first piano lesson at age 4, Watanabe has been singing songs with her own piano interpretations. In October 2016, she won the Audience Award with rave reviews from Japan’s most famous music critic, Reiko Yukawa.
In November, Watanabe appeared in ParaFes 2016, held at the Tokyo International Forum. She managed to steal the show while on the bill with the “pop goddess” Maki Oguro and Australian singer/violinist Sarah Alainn.
“I like New York and had fun performing at the different places and meeting so many great musicians,” said Watanabe through her interpreter. “New York has so many different sounds that are powerful with lots of energy.”
The film crew that accompanied the singer from Japan documented every moment of her musical experiences in the Big Apple. The documentary of her maiden voyage is in the midst of completion.
The teenage singer practices every day, and with her talent she will only progress to greater heights. More than likely Harlem has not seen the last of Chihiro Watanabe.