The Shape of Things to Come

Henry Threadgill looks forward to looking forward.

By Shaun Brady

Explaining the structure of Henry Threadgill’s music is no easy task. In the case of Zooid, the quintet that’s served as the composer and saxophonist’s main outlet for the past 14 years, the name of the group offers a hint. In biological terms, a zooid is an organic cell that maintains a degree of independence while forming part of a colonial organism. In the same way, each of Zooid’s members is free to improvise on his own while working together to create an organic, complex sound.

According to Threadgill, listeners don’t need to understand how his music works in order to appreciate it. “If the food tastes good,” he says, “you don’t need to know that I took cumin from Trinidad and buried it in the Sahara for 17 years and brought it back to Japan and processed it.”

Threadgill’s new two-disc recording, In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi), is the most elaborate exploration of his unique system to date. Focusing on the individual cells within his amorphous sonic organism, the 71-year-old saxophonist composed a separate piece to showcase each musician. And all of the pieces move through several distinct movements. He refers to the disc-spanning suite as an “epic,” and the scale and imagination of the work certainly lives up to that definition. “The record covers so much more room than I was able to previously do with shorter pieces,” Threadgill says. “It’s a much bigger picture.”

Despite the freedom that Threadgill’s chamber-meets-improv methodology gives musicians — allowing them to spontaneously create not just rhythm, harmony and melody, but form, as well — the music always sounds distinctly, miraculously, like the composer’s own. In part, that’s due to the quintet’s unique instrumentation, with Jose Davila on trombone and tuba; Liberty Ellman on guitar; Christopher Hoffman on violoncello and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. But it also stems from the eccentric parameters of Threadgill’s compositions, which give rise to unexpected forms and interactions. Listening to his music can feel like wandering through an alien landscape, where beings, shapes and even colors are unfamiliar and strange.

While Threadgill penned a dedicated piece for each band member within the larger composition, he didn’t write a feature for his own curious, questing alto- and flute playing — or so it would appear. “It’s there,” he insists. “It’s spread out through the whole thing, distributed in everyone else’s piece. It wasn’t necessary to write a separate fifth piece since I had all this room throughout the course of the other four.”

Zooid has become the longest-lasting of Threadgill’s many ensembles, each with their own accompanying vocabulary. But later this year, he’ll release the debut recording of his newest group, Double-Up, which features pairs of instrumentalists including pianists Jason Moran and David Virelles. Threadgill wrote another sweeping composition for the project, “Old Locks and Regular Verbs,” which salutes the late cornetist and composer Butch Morris and which uses Threadgill’s variation of his conduction system.

Both releases are emerging in the 50th-anniversary year of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the forward-looking organization of which Threadgill was a charter member. While he’ll be performing in several events throughout the year to commemorate that landmark, including festival-season shows with Jack DeJohnette’s “Made in Chicago” project, Threadgill says anniversaries don’t interest him.

“The biggest thing for the AACM was that you pursue individuality,” he explains. “It was about your ideas and your development only, and I thought that was fantastic. In my opinion, that’s what the AACM was really about. How forward-thinking people have been — we’re looking at that in retrospect. But I think you’re going to move forward when you pursue your own line of thought. I have a small audience in the world, when you think of the world’s population. And my audience expects me to bring them new things and to keep moving forward. I never go back.”

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