For Pyeng Threadgill, freedom to experiment

Boston Globe, June 25, 2006

The shimmering new album by singer Pyeng Threadgill, “Of the Air,” features eight original songs and two covers that, it’s safe to say, had never been juxtaposed before.

One is “Close to Me ” by the Cure; the other, Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.” They may seem like strange bedfellows, drawn from completely different epochs and styles, but what the melancholy rock tune and the golden- age jazz memento have in common is in plain sight: They’re both good songs.

That basic truth, the integrity of the song, is something like an organizing principle in the music of Threadgill, who plays at Scullers on Thursday.

Whether working from a songbook, like the Robert Johnson classics she reimagined on her debut , “Sweet Home,” or her own originals, Threadgill approaches each piece with equal curiosity, trusting that honest performance will get the better of audience preconceptions about genre and material.

“Am I a jazz singer? I used to say no, then I said yes, and now I’m kind of thinking no again,” Threadgill says on the phone. She’s driving around Berkeley, Calif., where she lives, running errands before heading out on her latest East Coast swing. “I’m somewhere between jazz, singer-songwriter, and pop artist.”

A healthy disregard for category comes naturally to Threadgill, who grew up in New York’s East Village in a musically transgressive, experimental family atmosphere. Her father is Henry Threadgill, the adventurous saxophonist and flutist who has been a principal figure of the New York avant-garde since the 1970s. Her mother, Christina Jones, who now lives in San Diego, was a founding member of the dance troupe Urban Bush Women.

“I grew up around a lot of music and dance,” Threadgill says. “But people have this expectation that I’m Henry Threadgill’s daughter, and that must be really crazy, or that my music should sound like his. Not at all. My dad’s music and my mother’s dancing were the fabric I grew up in. I absorbed it but it was not taught to me.”

She retained not the avant-garde inclinations – her music is more accessible, for starters – but the sense of freedom to experiment and combine styles. It’s probably not coincidental that Cassandra Wilson, whose combination of discipline and eclecticism Threadgill’s singing recalls, was for a time married to Henry Threadgill.

Returning a few years ago to New York after studying music and dance at Oberlin College in Ohio, Threadgill began to play around town, settling into a biweekly residency at a club called Anyway Cafe with cellist Dana Leong, whom she met through her father. They began as a duo, performing arduous, stripped-down sets of up to three hours.

“It was a big challenge for both of us,” Leong says. “We got to feed off each other – for her, working more with arrangements and physical sheet music, and for me, regaining the flexibility of learning to accompany on a solo cello.”

As their collaboration developed and they accumulated material, they added other players one by one until a band was formed. When Rick Congress, the founder of tiny Random Chance records, approached her after a performance to do a record of Robert Johnson covers, Threadgill was instantly drawn, even though, she says, she knew only the basics about the blues pioneer.

“I thought it would be a great learning experience,” she says. “It was such a cohesive idea.”

She infused “Love in Vain” with reggae, drawing a connection with Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain.” With some songs retaining an orthodox blues feel and others presenting gospel, soul, or pop elements, the album has a winsome, eclectic appeal.

The effect of coherence amid diversity is even more pronounced on the new album, “Of the Air,” which wears its name gracefully. Threadgill’s songwriting features gardens, light, living creatures; her tone is warm and easy, with a playful undercurrent. Sparse, clean , and intimate, the arrangements are designed to foreground her voice.

“The image of the air, for me, conjures positive things, lightness, transcendence,” she says. “And as a singer that’s what’s happening: My vocal cords are bumping against each other, I’m moving through air and moving air at the same time.”

With a 2 -year-old daughter and a husband, Nikolai Moderbacher, who sculpts and designs furniture, Threadgill admits that most of the time “I’m a mom and a wife.” She is also completing three years of study for certification in the Alexander therapy technique.

None of which has stopped her from launching yet another new project, this time with literature as her inspiration.

“I’m doing all this writing based on short stories,” she says. “I really feel that I’ve found a project for myself. It allows me to do something I really love, focus on the lyrics and craft the music around that.”