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A two-day Walker festival celebrates composer-bandleader Henry Threadgill

Henry Threadgill

Henry Threadgill Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center

In a corner of a spacious studio in the University of Minnesota’s Barker Center for Dance, the cellist and composer Michelle Kinney is leading a 10-piece group through an art song called “A Piece of Software.”

The ensemble ranges generationally from the talented 19-year-old saxophonist Ivan Cunningham, who is Kinney’s son, to the improviser, composer, and multi-disciplinary artist Douglas Ewart, one of the elder heroes of Twin Cities music. Its other members, notables of Twin Cities jazz and experimentalism, are Mankwe Ndosi, Anthony Cox, Dameun Strange, Eric Jensen, Faye Washington, Tarek Abdelqader, Pat O’Keefe, and Kinney herself. Kinney’s arrangement begins with a free introduction guided by Ndosi, a specialist in improvised vocalization, gradually builds during its first cycle through the song’s form, then explodes in lush harmony.

The song, originally released by the independent label About Time Records in 1984, can’t currently be heard on YouTube or streaming services and presumably hasn’t reached many ears, but it’s a page from one of modern music’s great bodies of work. Its lyrics are by Cassandra Wilson, writing a few years before she started her celebrated career as a leader, and its music is by Henry Threadgill, a composer, bandleader, and multi-instrumentalist most often heard on saxophones and flutes.

Threadgill is a kind of Joycean figure: a playful, lifelong enemy of convention whose ever-changing work has gotten weirder and more singular over the years. He’ll turn 75 this Friday and is in the middle of one of his most fecund periods, with regular year-in-review nods and a Pulitzer Prize to show for it.

“He doesn’t sit still,” says Kinney, who sometimes performed and recorded with Threadgill in the ’90s, when she was based in New York. She describes him as a joyful, inspiring bandleader, the sort to cause a busload of side players to break out in a chant—“Henry! Henry! Henry!”—after a galvanizing European show. “His prolific work reflects his boundless energy.”

Threadgill’s music can be heard from different angles this Friday and Saturday at Walker Art Center’s “Celebrating Henry: A Threadgill Festival.” Friday’s performance, curated by Kinney, will feature five ensembles interpreting Threadgill compositions, focusing on material from his first 20 years or so as a record maker. Saturday’s show starts with a set by the improvising power-trio Harriet Tubman, composed of drummer J. T. Lewis, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and guitarist Brandon Ross, a key member of Threadgill’s main ’90s band, Very Very Circus. They’ll be followed by Threadgill leading his long-running Zooid, one of several groups in his current rotation, and the one with which he has most prominently pursued the systematic approach to atonality that shapes some of his recent music.

Born in Chicago in 1944, Threadgill was an eclectic from an early age, transformed by different strains of modernism—Sonny Rollins, Claude Debussy, Ornette Coleman, Edgard Varèse—while soaking in disparate music at home and around the neighborhood. As a teenager he met a kindred spirit in the pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams. In the mid-’60s, Abrams cofounded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago collective whose eventually far-flung members would come to have an epochal influence on jazz, new music, and the black avant-garde. This influence was most powerfully felt in the ’70s and ’80s, but the AACM’s legacy is heard in works by some of today’s era-defining figures of jazz and jazz-related music, including Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson, and Tyshawn Sorey.

In addition to exploring ideas with Abrams and other members of the fledgling AACM, Threadgill played in marching bands and toured with gospel singers. In ’67, he enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam, playing in the Fourth Infantry Division Band. His duties were never strictly musical; injured in the Tet Offensive, he was honorably discharged. Returning to Chicago, he made his way as a free-ranging jobber and aspiring composer, studying at the American Conservatory of Music, working as musical director for experimental theater and dance productions, and gigging in blues bars, polka halls, wherever.

Threadgill didn’t pursue a traditional jazz apprenticeship—building a reputation at jam sessions and as a sideman—and no longer professes to play jazz, a term he considers limiting and diluted to the point of meaninglessness. It’s common for musicians bristle at taxonomy, but Threadgill’s mutable and many-sided music genuinely resists it; probably best to heed the advice he gave listeners in an interview with Larry Applebaum: “Just sample me; you don’t know whether I’m a hot dog or a hamburger.”

Threadgill prefers live music to records. Most likely he’d rather you sample him this weekend in person. Do it. But if you want to get to know his music at home, his catalog of albums is large and consistently interesting. I’ve heard most but not all of them and won’t presume a ranking, but the ones listed below (a dozen in boldface headings with others mentioned along the way) would keep you busy for a while. (Streamers should note that Apple Music’s gappy Threadgill collection at least runs deeper than Spotify’s, and that many of Threadgill’s recent albums for Pi Recordings can be previewed and purchased digitally or materially through Bandcamp.)

Air, Air Song (1975)

In 1971, one of Threadgill’s theatrical jobs was for a production whose music derived in part from Scott Joplin pieces. The show’s pit band was Threadgill with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall, an AACM cofounder about 10 years Threadgill’s senior. The trio started working together as Reflection, later rebranded as Air, later still overshadowed on search engines by the like-named French electronic-pop duo. Air’s debut album was cut in 1975 and quietly released by Whynot Records, a prescient but short-lived Japanese label.

Threadgill is a multi-instrumentalist, taking up various saxophones and flutes, once in a while grabbing a clarinet, and, in the Air days, sometimes schlepping a hubkapaphone, a self-designed percussion instrument made up of variously pitched hubcaps (it can be heard on Air Raid and Air Time—as with the Greg Kihn Band, the group had a weakness for punning album titles). More often than not, though, Air was sax, bass, and drums, and Threadgill’s time with the group was his only extended period of writing for a notably precedented instrumental format. Sax trios were novel when they were pioneered and mastered in the late ’50s by Sonny Rollins. Thanks to Rollins’ paragon, the sax trio quickly became an established if never a common lineup, taken up by free explorers such as Albert Ayler and a variety of endurance blowers looking for the liberating challenge of stating themes and improvising without the chordal ballast of a piano or guitar. (Also, sax trios are economical and don’t need a club with a piano.) Air was part of that family tree but on an outstretched branch. Threadgill writes on piano but has been chary about using the instrument in his groups, and he’s a compelling improviser with an elastic tone, often spiky and insistent, sometimes clear and sweet. But he tends to lead more as a composer, arranger, and collectivist auteur than as a dominant soloist. Air often sounded less like a saxophone trio than like a very small and symbiotic orchestra that included a sax player.

Air Song isn’t a recording of the highest fidelity, but Fred Hopkins’ rich bass tone is apparent, and though Steve McCall’s kit sounds boxy in spots, drummers will note the inventive tunings he employed to suit each piece. Precise drum tuning has been a lifelong interest of Threadgill’s, and he and McCall were interested in using the drum kit to expand the inherently limited trio’s melodic and harmonic resources. Supposedly, the percussion was sometimes tuned to the 12-tone scale; I can’t pick that up, but it’s certainly an expansive, colorful sound. Of the album’s four long pieces, the two most memorable are “Untitled Tango” and “Great Body of the Riddle or Where Were the Dodge Boys When My Clay Started to Slide.” That last tune, a good charades stumper, has Threadgill on baritone and shows off his gift for beguiling if not quite hummable melodies marked by odd rhythmic turns, unexpected intervals, and unconventional intonation. As with many of Threadgill’s projects, the group, which would soon relocate to New York, establishes a wide scope that includes tightly through-composed sections and stretches of unhampered improv.

Air, Air Lore (1979)

Clive Davis’ Arista Records was best known in the late ’70s and early ’80s for MOR hitmakers such as Barry Manilow and Air Supply, but its jazz division, overseen by Steve Backer, put out some of the most adventurous records of the period, including this breakthrough program of ragtime and early jazz. Having originally come together to interpret Scott Joplin’s music, Air continued to include his compositions in their sets, and here they document their collaborative arrangements of two of his rags, “The Ragtime Dance” and “Weeping Willow Rag.” Joplin’s music enjoyed a renaissance in the ’70s, commercially initiated by Joshua Rifkin’s excellent and unexpectedly million-selling Scott Joplin: Piano Rags,extending through lots of prim revivals and sweaty youth piano recitals. Air’s pianoless recontextualizations sound like no Joplin I’ve ever heard but feel essentially faithful: rowdy and mercurial yet still lyrical and serious. The album also includes a moody Threadgill original, “Paille Street,” and two Jelly Roll Morton classics: a lovely take on “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” with Threadgill on tenor, and an infectious “King Porter Stomp.” McCall’s drums are nicely recorded and hot in the mix; his introduction to “Weeping Willow” displays his genius as a soloist.

Henry Threadgill, X-75 Volume 1 (1979)

Air’s original lineup continued into the early ’80s (its final release, 80 Below ’82, is a gem—check out the swooning “Do Tell”). New Air, with Pheeroan akLaff replacing McCall, carried on through a 1986 studio album with Cassandra Wilson as a featured vocalist. Before Air deflated (sorry) and before Threadgill put together another working band, he made this underheard solo debut. It swerved from Air in feel and palette and presaged what would become an enduring attraction to mid-sized and large ensembles with nonconforming instrumentation. He’s drawn to doubling, tripling, and quadrupling: bands that have at least one set of two or more players on the same instrument. For X-75, Amina Claudine Myers, away from her piano, sings soprano in front of an odd double quartet: four (!) basses, one often a piccolo bass for higher frequencies (a piccolo bass plays an octave higher than a double bass), collectively providing a ground for four woodwinds, including Douglas Ewart, about a decade before he settled in Minneapolis. You’d think that all those basses would have the same effect as rain on a dirt track, but the album’s colors are distinct across the spectrum. Some of this stuff is pretty thorny and outside, but the album also has some of Threadgill’s most beautiful music, especially the dissonance-laced folk song “Celebration.” The basses take a breather for a version of “Air Song” arranged for voice, flutes, and piccolo.

The Henry Threadgill Sextet, Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket (1983)

Threadgill’s main outfit in the ’80s was the Sextet, which on this, its second outing, included Threadgill on alto and bari saxes, flute, and clarinet; Hopkins still in the fold on bass; cellist Diedre Murray; trombonist Craig Harris; cornetist Olu Dara (about 10 years later, Dara would add his cornet to “Life’s a Bitch” from his son Nas’s landmark debut album); and drummers John Betsch and the above-mentioned akLaff. Mathematicians will note that this sextet includes seven musicians, but the two percussionists operate as a single, intricately interlocking unit (to address the numerical ambiguity, Threadgill later added a third t to sextet). Though it wasn’t a full-sized big band, the group lets Threadgill orchestrate in terms of sections: strings, brass, and his own one-man woodwinds. On this and subsequent records, the counterpoint lines and ad-libbed interplay between Hopkins and Murray are on a level high enough to threaten altitude sickness.

Pass the Bucket’s cover photo shows the group standing with their backs to the camera in funeral attire, their white gloves matching the graveyard’s melting spring snow. The album’s six pieces aren’t explicitly billed as a suite, but on Side Two we’re clearly hearing a cycle concerning death and transformation. The pieces are affectingly composed and sequenced for contrast, the celebratory rubbing up against the elegiac. “Cremation” showcases Murray, whose soft high notes end the piece with a shiver. Running through all the Sextet(t)’s work is a heavy strain of abstract blues, for which Dara and Harris were particularly suited.

The Henry Threadgill Sextett, You Know the Number (1987)

When Backer brought his Novus imprint to RCA, Threadgill started another fruitful period with a big label. Though not exactly commercial, You Know the Number is among the most immediately inviting of Threadgill’s albums. Its touches of Ellington, blues, Mingus, calypso, funk, marching-band and circus music, and (maybe) Balkan dance bands will give purchase to a variety of listeners. Side Two’s exuberance isn’t terribly infectious (the CD version interrupts the tempo by adding the Sextett’s reworking of “Paille Street”), but Side One is some of Threadgill’s best. It starts with a crowd-pleaser, the loping “Bermuda Blues,” on which the Murray-Hopkins colloquy is especially funky. The keening “Silver and Gold Baby, Silver and Gold” follows, creating another of Threadgill’s sharp sequencing contrasts. The side closes with “Theme from Thomas Cole,” originally scored for Thomas Cole, A Walking Dream, a New York Shakespeare Festival production about the Hudson River School painter. The piece won’t evoke Cole’s more pastoral landscapes, but it will bring to mind his attention to detail; here Threadgill and the band navigate demanding unison passages, contrapuntal melodies, and precise syncopation, all mixed with spur-of-the-moment decisions and raucous humor more suggestive of the big top than the conservatory.

The Sextett’s lineup had shifted by this point. One misses Dara and Harris, but new trumpeter Rasul Siddik and trombonist Frank Lacy gel, and the rhythm section, with Reggie Nicholson joining akLaff, sounds better than ever. In a long and informative interview conducted by the pianist Ethan Iverson, Threadgill says that, when using two drummers in the Sextett, he “always had one drummer that played this far behind the beat and another drummer that played almost ahead of the beat. So the beat is that wide, so you could lay information in quite differently.” The drums on Number are panned left and right; headphone analysis might reward. On the group’s similarly eclectic next album, 1988’s Easily Slip into Another World, the two-drummer approach at times leads to a cluttered more than an expanded groove, though the album includes favorites such as the New Orleans-rooted “Spotted Dick Is Pudding,” red meat for Lacy’s trombone.

Henry Threadgill Sextett, Rag, Bush and All (1989)

The final Sextett album isn’t as tuneful or ludic as its two predecessors and in other respects is more of a departure than a summing up. Threadgill’s compositional hand is still foregrounded—there are his sudden turns and distinctive orchestrations, and the ensemble remains a stronger voice than any of its members—but the arrangements are more open than before. The players get longer solos over shifting accompaniment, including passages of swinging drums and walking bass, unusual on Threadgill records. The opener has excellent pizzicato work from Diedre Murray, who coproduced the album and Easily, and Threadgill himself stretches out on “Sweet Holy Rag,” a few times nodding at Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” Other members are new. Complementing Threadgill in the horn section are two of his contemporaries: bass trombonist Bill Lowe and trumpeter Ted Daniel, a wonderful player and a fellow Vietnam veteran whose sideman credits go back to Sonny Sharrock’s debut as a leader. The percussionists—Reggie Nicholson now with Newman Baker—are crucial to the eerie “Gift,” and the multirhythms bloom throughout. Murray and Daniel have their names misspelled on the jacket (I’ve done the same damn thing), but proofreading is one of the album’s few minor defects.

Henry Threadgill, Too Much Sugar for a Dime (1993)

Threadgill’s next group, also a septet, was Very Very Circus. Doubtless this name helped prod my earlier reference to big tops. This time Threadgill’s twinning scheme called for two electric guitars and, with fewer antecedents outside halftime and parades, two tubas. Threadgill and French horn player Mark Taylor played the lighter horns. The group was anchored by the very very groovy Gene Lake, son of Oliver, a great alto player from Threadgill’s cohort. After working without a chordal instrument for so long, Threadgill leapfrogged to two of them, but as with most of his work, he prefers to spread out harmonies across the group; the guitars do comp with chords, but often they instead lock in with single-note lines, incomplete chords, subtle textures, and leads. Too Much Sugar, the third album to feature a version of the Circus, was co-produced with clarity and rocky oomph by Bill Laswell, whose association with Threadgill dates back to the early ’80s. This group is tight. (Threadgill’s ensembles reportedly rehearse a lot, not always realistic for jazz bands, whose members generally maintain multiple commitments to make a living.) On “In Touch” and “Better Wrapped / Better Unwrapped,” a jump-cut diptych, the core band is augmented by enough guests to fill a softball field, including a trio of violinists and two percussionists playing culo e puya, a battery of small Venezuelan drums. Jazz is only part of the equation; fans of Fela or Zappa or Living Colour would probably get on board, and much of the album is a kind of internationalist dance fusion, its grooves overlong for armchair auditions but sparking when you’re on your feet.

Henry Threadgill, Carry the Day and Makin’ a Move (both 1995)

Laswell stayed on as a coproducer for a group of albums Threadgill made for Columbia. Carry the Day is attentively recorded and mixed, the sound luxuriant and not as strident as Sugar. Again the band is Very Very Circus, frequently enlarged by accordion, percussion, and vocals. The mixtape must is the opener, “Come Carry the Day,” a densely harmonized dance invitation sung in Spanish by guest percussionists Johnny Rudas and Miguel Urbina. Around the midpoint Threadgill puts in the sort of hard-blowing solo to which roofs are structurally vulnerable. Another highlight is “Vivjanrondirkski,” one of the best entries from Threadgill’s chapbook of songs, this one sung by Sentienla Toy (Toy and Threadgill are now married). About halfway through the song, the rangy melody takes Toy to a climactic figure ending in a crystalline high D, which the French horn and violin vary and turn into an ostinato running through the rest of the piece. Great.

Like many albums from the height of the CD era and all episodes of The Ropers, Very Very Circus’s quick-to-arrive next album, Makin’ a Move, is about 20 minutes too long. Where a few Sextett tunes seemed compositionally overstuffed, extended Circus tunes can drag on without introducing enough to hold the attention. The guitar playing is virtuosic, though I’ve never warmed to the digital overdrive that treats some lines and leads. Then again, “Official Silence” is perfect, a reggae-ish burner with bluesy guitars and a slow-building melody put over by Taylor’s French horn. And there are interesting tracks with a trio of cellists, including Michelle Kinney, and one with Myra Melford, to whom Threadgill often turns for his rare piano pieces. Both Melford and Kinney can be heard, too, on 1993’s Song Out of My Trees, which features various ensembles and a few tunes for which Threadgill lays out altogether.

Henry Threadgill’s Zooid, This Brings Us to Volume 1 (2009) and In for a Penny, In for a Pound (2015)

Zooid’s recorded debut was 2001’s Up Popped the Two Lips, the second release from Pi Recordings, now Threadgill’s home for nine albums and one of a diminished industry’s necessary labels. Like many jazz-rooted musicians, Threadgill has long been interested in mingling composition and improvisation till the distinction fuzzes. And like Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, and others, he has developed new frameworks for facilitating and constraining this mix. Since its formation, Zooid’s music has been more and more directed by a chromatic system of intervallic mutations Threadgill has called a “serial intervallic language.” When prodded in interviews to get down to the theoretical nitty-gritty of this system, Threadgill sometimes glosses the rules, sometimes prefers metaphorical terms and witty analogies. To judge from his paradoxical descriptions, the language can be quite strict but is necessarily open to violation, or maybe it’s better to say that freedom is part of its rigor.

I don’t confidently follow how the system works in practice, but I got an inkling through a few pieces that can be truffled out online: an interview with Zooid guitarist Liberty Ellman conducted by the jazz critic Nate Chinen, four or five Threadgill interviews including the one conducted by Iverson and a podcast with the trumpeter Dave Douglas, a transcription and commentary by Dan Schmidt, and most of all a dissertation by the drummer and scholar Chad Taylor. The next two paragraphs cover some theory; though they’re meant for everyone, feel free to skip ahead.

Threadgill’s recent pieces, and many of his older ones, are atonal. That is, they don’t have traditional key centers and make use of the whole chromatic scale as well as microtones between that scale’s twelve tones. They’ll typically start, it seems, with what Threadgill calls a “cell.” You could less metaphorically call it a three-note chord whose embedded intervals determine what choices will be permitted and restricted for part of the piece, usually for a measure or two. (An interval is the distance between two tones, commonly named with terms that describe that distance qualitatively and numerically; from C to E we have a major third; from C to E-flat, a minor third.) A Threadgill cell is unlikely to be a major, minor, diminished, or augmented triad for which we have a ready name and symbol. More likely it will be three notes that, in a conventional chart, might be analyzed as part of a more extended harmony. A serviceably characteristic Threadgillian cell would be G, A-flat, and B. This cell yields the following intervals: a minor second from G to A-flat (a tense interval that turns up often in Threadgill’s recent music); a minor third from A-flat to B; and a major third from G to B. You could create more intervals with these notes by further ascending or descending, but Threadgill starts with this contained set.

So far our example cell’s interval set, in shorthand numbers, is -2, -3, 3. In preparing a piece, Threadgill then mutates the original cell into a group of typically six offspring cells by dropping one note and adding a new one, the new note necessarily arrived at by starting from another note and moving up or down by one of the original intervals. This isn’t how he cooks up a chord progression; it’s how he develops an interval set. For instance, in creating his first offspring cell, he might drop the A-flat and move down a minor third from G to E. Could he instead move up a sixth? No! It’s not part of his original cell. This first offspring cell (an E-minor chord of E, G, and B) contains a new interval, a perfect fifth, so now the interval set is -2, -3, 3, 5. He continues this process of altering the original cell to expand the interval set. On his scores, along with standard notation, he writes the parent cell’s notes (not a chord symbol) and the set of intervals that arose from his procedures with that parent cell. The notated melody, harmonies, and counterpoint; the bass lines; the improvisation, the fills—everything should utilize only those intervals until a new cell and a new set of intervals are introduced on the score. In a real playing situation, that change might happen in a few seconds or less. Though the pieces have mapped-out forms, Threadgill wants them to be, as he puts it, “modular.” Sections might be expanded or relocated, composed parts might give way to improv. As with any living language, the rules aren’t rigidly obeyed—during solos especially, a player, with Threadgill’s encouragement, might jaywalk to off-the-chart intervals, but the shifting sets of intervals remain the harmonic guide. For a side player, no easy gig!

It’s not that Threadgill wants merely to confound his supporting players but rather to challenge them (and himself) to stretch for new means of expression, to set aside much of their toolkit. With the harmony moving unpredictably and certain intervals off-limits, you probably can’t turn to mastered scales and modes, habitual licks, or all the extensions, alterations, substitutions, and reharmonizations that jazz players use to refresh tonal pieces such as a standard with a repeated AB form. Long before Threadgill entered the deep end with his intervallic language, he wanted musicians to push themselves in this way. Taylor’s dissertation includes an interview with the guitarist Brandon Ross, who remembers a band rehearsal in which Threadgill presented him with a strange set of changes to solo over. After the group finished the tune, Threadgill, laughing, said, “You couldn’t play your regular shit through that, right?”

On This Brings Us to Volume 1, what arises from all this rethunk theory isn’t seat-clearing chaos—there is dissonance and much unresolved tension, sure, but the music is sometimes soothing, often groovy, no slog. Still, it can be hard to get a grip on, even if you’re at home with atonality. While it’s not cathartic like some of the best free jazz, it doesn’t dole out much perceptible, predictable repetition to help you puzzle out the form of a piece, and there are few outbreaks of singing melody. It can draw you back all the same. At this point the band was Threadgill along with Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar, Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. They’re exciting soloists and ensemble players, impressively interlocked through what must sometimes have felt like netless funambulism.

New methods notwithstanding, fans of older Threadgill won’t be shocked. One hears continuity, for instance on the tuba-bottomed funk of “Chairmaster,” and as a melodist and contrapuntal thinker, Threadgill has always been drawn to underused intervals, leaps and hops and minces. Comfortable riffs are in short supply but when they emerge, they can take on extra power; about a minute and a quarter into “After Some Time,” Threadgill lays roughly into a blues lick, and what might have sounded pro forma in another context takes on a new shine. Though it’s interesting to consider how the intervallic language informs the music, the music isn’t about the language, and the harmonic material only accounts for part of what makes Threadgill’s late records distinctive. Rhythmically, for instance, some odd stuff is going down. It’s tricky music to count: time signatures frequently shift, and Threadgill, who now prefers not to think in terms of bars and meter, likes to suppress the downbeat (Taylor, with his expertise as a drummer, elaborates on this in his dissertation). Even so, you can move to it, and probably will, though your toes or shoulders might not synchronize with your neighbor’s. My favorites from this album are “White Wednesday Off the Wall” (sparse chamber modernism with lots of cool guitar harmonics and variously created squeaks, thumps, and groans) and “To Undertake My Corners Open” (bounces, with points).

Threadgill’s Pulitzer came from the double-album recording of a unified piece, In for a Penny, In for a Pound. The album is made up of two introductions and four long pieces, the long ones written for instruments played by Threadgill’s Zooid side players, which now includes Christopher Hoffman’s cello but not Takeishi’s bass. But everyone is featured on all pieces, and though I noted certain spotlit improvisations, I doubt I would have perceived the movements’ concerto-like intentions had Threadgill’s notes and titles not cued me.

The piece is both gentler and colder than the bulk of Threadgill’s work. The dynamic range is relatively narrow, attuned to Ellman’s acoustic guitar, and the music—elegant, philosophical—doesn’t chase after emotional effects. Nothing finishes with a small-caps THE END. In his liner notes, Threadgill writes that he thinks of the piece in epic terms, and certainly it has scope, but one of its intriguing qualities is how it resists narrative. The long pieces are made up of seamed sections. I’m not sure if these sections are modular, but Threadgill says he was going for a piece that could be given a “new perspective and arrangement with each performance,” and it feels like the sections could be juggled and reordered without doing violence to the composition, which in the end describes a journey less than it designs a maze. I’ve found that you can listen to this music with distracted pleasure (a while back I kept it going for a few hundred miles of I-94), and that concentrated listening tends to stimulate musing (a form of distraction). This is disciplined, well-oiled music that can also sound random; this is a band that executes deft unison passages and is on the same page even when off the score, but its cohesion is also in service of disunity, of careful parts that contrast and dissect; there are fluid runs, most excitingly from Ellman, but throughout the album lead lines and solos contain many odd rests, like the players are pausing to deliberate while addressing a delicate matter with Terry Gross, or crossing a stream by stepping on mossy, widely spaced rocks; soloists step downstage for a few bars, then recede, are replaced, colorfully overlap like Cy Twombly squiggles—no, more mathematical, like Spirograph sunsets.

Henry Threadgill, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (2016)

Threadgill followed up In for a Penny with another multipart piece, this one written to commemorate Lawrence “Butch” Morris, a cornetist best known for conducting improvised music through a process he called “conduction.” Threadgill and Morris were longtime friends and in the early ’80s played together in the David Murray Octet. (A stickler for brevity, I won’t get into Threadgill’s sideman dates, but that octet’s Ming and Home are highly recommended.) Old Locks also introduces a new group, Ensemble Double Up. Those of us who’ve wished Threadgill would work more often with pianists are answered with two heavyweights, Jason Moran and David Virelles. The doubling continues with two alto saxophonists, Roman Filiu and Curtis Macdonald. Threadgill doesn’t play but conducts, and I assume the room mikes are picking up his voice singing or offering encouragement. The group is rounded out by drummer Craig Weinrib and Zooid’s Davila and Hoffman. Zooid’s Ellman produces.

As on In for a Penny, the music is atonal, and the most obviously composed sections employ a similar language, but by and large this is a more democratic and expressive outing. Soloists navigate unusual harmonies but don’t spend a lot of time detectably under intervallic orders, and the pianists carry on a vibrant dialogue without getting in each other’s way. Unlike Penny, Old Locks is arced, and it becomes most movingly eulogistic from the end of Part Three through Part Four. Reminiscent of Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket, this closing section is a mostly delicate dirge, its harmonies an effective blend of dissonance and consonance, though it builds to cacophony. At the end, the saxes reach up for a tense, ecstatic blast.

Celebrating Henry: A Threadgill Festival

Where: McGuire Theater, Walker Art Center
When:
8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15 and Saturday, Feb. 16
Tickets: Friday $25 ($20 for Walker members); Saturday $35 ($28 for Walker members); more info here