Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Threadgill, Pyeng

Vocalist Pyeng Threadgill is a born iconoclast: the daughter of composer Henry Threadgill and choreographer Christina Jones, she combines influences from Swing, New Orleans brass bands, hip hop, and alternative rock in her interpretations and compositions. Still unsure as to whether to make jazz her musical home, she is as likely to be found singing songs by pianist Fats Waller as by bluesman Robert Johnson or the eighties New Wave band The Cure.

Threadgill grew up in the eclectic cultural stew of New York City's Lower East Side in the 1970s: Polish, Puerto Rican, African-American, Chinese, and Jewish communities coexisted within the neighborhood. Threadgill cites crooners Sam Cooke and Al Green, bebop vocalist King Pleasure, and bands Depeche Mode and A Tribe Called Quest as among her early musical influences. She studied classical music at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Threadgill's 2005 debut album, Sweet Home, is a set of wildly creative interpretations of songs by iconic bluesman Robert Johnson. “Phonograph Blues” has a swinging, brassy funk beat that turns an optimistic ear on the original’s double-entendres and surrealism. “Milkcow’s Calf Blues,” meanwhile, evokes the work of guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer with its slide guitar and horns with no rhythm section, Threadgill’s voice seems to float above the impressionistic background.

“Sweet Home Chicago,” despite its name, draws inspiration from a city much further south, New Orleans. With its rattling snare drum and march-like upbeat dirge, Threadgill offers fresh insight into something easily turned into a cliché.

On Sweet Home, Threadgill extends, disrupts, interprets, worries, and flaunts the inconsistencies of the blues even as she wrestles with their basic primal impulses. Mixing swing, New Orleans tailgate brass bands, hip hop, and alternative rock, she plays with the expectations of a conventional jazz audience. As she said in an interview with John Murph in Jazz Times: "I wanted each song to be different. Otherwise what would be the point?"

Threadgill's 2005 album Of the Air intersperses original compositions with covers of “Close to Me” by The Cure and Fats Waller's “Jitterbug Waltz.” Originally conceived as a duet of cello and voice, the album incorporates cello, as well as brass and reed instruments and subtle electronic embellishments.

“Power Trip” uses an expressive barrage of baritone saxophone in a tough-minded cloying seduction. “Ambrosia” seems to combine the brooding textures of Cassandra Wilson with the sprightly intoxication of pop singers such as Karen O, lead singer for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. On “Close to Me,” Threadgill invests the gothic ambience of the original with a sensual, even provocative clarity.

"Am I a jazz singer? I used to say no, then I said yes, and now I'm kind of thinking no again," Threadgill told the Boston Globe's Siddartha Mitter in 2006. "I'm somewhere between jazz, singer-songwriter, and pop artist."

Threadgill has received a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts in Music Composition for her upcoming album Portholes To A Love & Other Short Stories, which consists of original compositions based on short stories to explore concepts of reality and magic, humanity, and nature.

Threadgill is married to Nikolai Moderbacher, a sculptor and furniture designer, with whom she has a 2 -year-old daughter, Luna. She is also trained as a teacher of The Alexander Technique, a relaxation therapy popular with both dancers and musicians.

Discography:

Sweet Home: Pyeng Threadgill Sings Robert Johnson (Random Chance, 2004)

Of the Air (Random Chance, 2005)

Contributor: Sean Singer