Bird Alone: Bill McHenry and the Wood Thrush

This the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy and imagination. —Henry David Thoreau

Bill McHenry


Bonus points to anyone who can Photoshop a wood thrush somewhere on Bill McHenry's Brooklyn rooftop. Photo Credit: Josh Jackson, WBGO.

The jazz musician has something in common with the naturalist — both have nearly exhausted the use of aviary awe and songbird metaphor. Charles Mingus wrote "Reincarnation of a Lovebird." There's "Skylark," "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," and an entire subset of birdseed from Charlie Parker. Even Antonio Carlos Jobim got into the game with "Passarim."

Pity the poor wood thrush, however, a specimen that has historically been on the short shrift in jazz. This is, after all, the winged songster that John James Audubon called his "greatest favourite of the feathered tribes of our woods." (That didn't stop him from killing them with blow darts, making dioramas with them, and painting them. He just didn't have a camera handy back then.)

Anyway, imagine for a moment that you had two independent vocal membranes like the wood thrush, and you could control them simultaneously. Ventriloquism would be so easy!

What does any of this have to do with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry? For starters, he's obsessed with the wood thrush.

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Bill McHenry is our featured artist for the next installment of Live at the Village Vanguard. This is my birdbrained attempt at a multimedia promo for the show.

Tune in this Wednesday, Jun. 10 at 9 p.m. for Bill McHenry's kind of jazz.

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