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The word? It has lost its meaning anymore. It’s been diluted so badly. It’s gone so far now, I don’t even want to associate with the word…. I’d rather for people to engage me without a label. I’d prefer that. Just come and sample me - you don’t know whether I’m a hot dog or a hamburger.
- Henry Threadgill in 2013, when asked about the word Jazz
In a 2016 interview, Ethan Iverson said, “Some jazz guys would feel that classical music was off-limits.”
To which Henry Threadgill answered, “…I’m not jazz, though.”
Last month, the formidable Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery, located on the ground floor of 2156 West Fulton Street in Chicago, sponsored a book launch and conversation to celebrate Henry Threadgill's new autobiography Easily Slip into Another World: A Life in Music, published by Knopf and co-written with Brent Hayes Edwards.
Unfortunately, I missed that event; however, I’m in Chicago this weekend and will stop by Corbett vs. Dempsey to pick up a copy.
Although Terence Blanchard and Anthony Davis might get most of the press these days, and rightly so, along with fellow AACM member Anthony Braxton, I think Henry Threadgill is one of the most important Black composers alive today. In fact, Henry Threadgill is one of only three jazz artists to win a Pulitzer Prize, which he won in 2016 for his album In For A Penny, In For A Pound. The other two are Wynton Marsalis’ 1997 jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields (the first time the Pulitzer Prize was awarded for a “jazz” music composition, rather than a “classical” composition) and Ornette Coleman’s 2007 jazz album Sound Grammar.
It’s incredible to me that Theadgill now runs in the same rare company as past Pulitzer winners like composers Aaron Copland (Appalachian Spring, 1945), Virgil Thompson (Music for the film Louisiana Story, 1949), Ned Rorem (Air Music, 1976), and Roger Sessions (Concerto for Orchestra, 1982). It’s well past time to take note.
Henry Theadgill was born in 1944 in Chicago and grew up on the South Side. When he was 17 years old, he joined Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental band and became an early member of the AACM. In 1967, he enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. After he was honorably discharged, he moved back to Chicago and reunited with the AACM. He made his recording debut on Muhal Richard Abrams’ seminal 1969 album Young at Heart/Wise in Time. In 1970, he moved to New York City and was part of the AACM’s New York Chapter. In 1971 he founded the band Air (Artists In Residence) with Fred Hopkins on bass and Steve McCall on drums. He remained with Air until 1986. While in New York in the 1970s he continued to record in Chicago, most notably on Roscoe Mitchell albums Nonaah (1977) and L-R-G/The Maze/S II Examples (1978), both recorded on the superb Nessa record label. You can read more about Nessa here:
Incidentally, as Chuck Nessa reminded me, on 17 and 18 November 1977 his Nessa Records recorded the first Air recording for domestic consumption - Air Time.
Also in 1977, Threadgill recorded on Anthony Braxton’s For Trio, released in 1978 on the Arista Records label:
From this album, listen to NW-5-94 (Opus 76) (Version One):
I think this album had an impact on Threadgill’s musical growth and his outlook on the possibility of composition and improvisation. In particular, he followed Braxton’s method of writing music using his own system and his own notations, which are most evident later in Threadgill’s compositions with his band Zooid.
During the early 1980s and 1990s, he recorded a few fine albums with David Murray and formed a number of innovative groups and experimental ensembles. For example, from his Make A Move group’s 1997 Columbia release Where’s Your Cup, here’s the title track:
I dig the accordion or is that a harmonium? Incidentally, I like Threadgill’s flute compositions and wish there were more of them. Unfortunately, after this album, his contract with Columbia ended. He drifted into relative obscurity until he was re-discovered by Seth Rosner, who in 2001 along with Yulun Wang launched the independent record company Pi Recordings. Henry Threadgill was their first recording artist. To me, Threadgill’s most compelling work started with this association with Pi Recordings, when he left the electric sound behind.
Some might draw comparisons to the classic Blue Note label founded by two friends Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. However, I find Pi Recordings’ support for improvised music and the younger musicians playing it more like the German label Free Music Production (FMP), whose first release was Manfred Schoof's European Echoes in 1968. You can read more about FMP here:
2022 marked Pi Recordings’ 100th release and in so doing has led the way for new Jazz and contemporary music for this century. In the Fall 2022 edition of We Jazz Magazine Will Layman wrote, “From the start, label founder Seth Rosner had a clear mission to correct the ‘injustice’ of master musicians being overlooked. In the 1980s and 1990s, major labels such as Columbia and Blue Note were dropping innovators like Henry Threadgill and saxophonist Arthur Blythe, while touting music that looked backward to jazz tradition.”
Toward that end, Pi Recordings’ first release was Henry Threadgill and his band Make A Move’s Everybodys Mouth’s A Book:
The song What To Do, What To Do from that album set the stage for the formation of his group Zooid’s innovative approach to composition where, in his own words, “A set of three note intervals assigned to each player…serves as a starting point for improvisation.” This process was refined over time and can be heard in Zooid’s striking releases This Brings Us to Volumes 1 & 2, both recorded in 2008.
In November 2008, Threadgill’s pianoless quintet Zooid made its debut. I like this ensemble format with Threadgill on flute and alto, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Jose Davilla on trombone and tube, Storm Takeishi on bass guitar, and Elliott Humberto Kavee on drums:
I love the first three songs which feature Threadgill on flute. Volume 2 is a companion release recorded at the same session. In 2011 Zooid, now expanded to a sextet with the addition of Christopher Hoffman on cello, recorded the fine Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp. It was this sextet that would come together to record Zooid’s epic In For A Penny, In For A Pound.
In a 2013 interview at the Library of Congress, Threadgill called Zooid at that time “… by far the greatest ensemble I’ve ever had.” That’s high praise for a musician of Threadgill’s depth. This was a prophetic statement, as it was before his ensemble recorded the Pulitzer Prize-winning In For A Penny, In For A Pound:
In For A Penny, In For A Pound was recorded in December 2015 and released by the Pi Recordings label in the spring of 2015. Threadgill calls this work, “a series of small concertos.” This concerto is very interesting and takes some time to fully appreciate. There’s so much going on here that I can’t even explain it - you just need to play it for yourself.
After In For Penny, In For A Pound was released, Zooid recorded one more album, Poof, released in 2021. During the six years between these two releases, Threadgill also concentrated on larger ensemble groups. For example, in 2018, he recorded Dirt…And More Dirt with his 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg. This was an ensemble that features 15 musicians: guitar, bass, drummers (2), cello, tuba, alto saxophone (3), flute (2), trumpet (2), trombone (2), and piano (2):
I wonder if calling his ensemble “Kestra” was a nod to Sun Ra’s Arkestra?
Threadgill’s move from the smaller group format of Zooid to the larger ensemble format culminates with, I think, The Other One - his crown jewel, recorded on May 21, 2022, with a twelve-piece ensemble:
It was released earlier this year and the music is dedicated to the late Milford Graves, who passed away on February 12, 2021.
"Of Valence” is a long composition consisting of three movements, two of which offer a number of relatively brief sections that feature smaller configurations of the ensemble. In a recent Stereogum article, Phil Freeman said it best, “Like previous Threadgill albums Dirt…And More Dirt, In For A Penny, In For A Pound, Old Locks And Irregular Verbs, and Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus, this is a big piece meant to be absorbed as one thing, not a collection of tunes. So when you’ve got an hour, dive in.” I agree, that’s the best way to go….
At the end of the day, the thing I admire most about Henry Threadgill is his journey. I first learned about him from those early Delmark and Nessa releases with fellow AACM musicians and then through his trio Air. These Pi Recordings seem so far away from there. His journey has been long and winding, and he always followed a path that led to original music - not an easy way to go. With Of Valance, Threadgill completes the transformation from sideman recording with Roscoe Mitchell and Anthony Braxton to one of America’s leading composers. He is a true pioneer.
We also need to give an incredible shout-out to Pi Recordings for investing their time and effort into bringing this wonderful music to all of us. Just as a side note, I have not included links to most of the Pi Recordings songs/albums that I reference above, but they are all available for purchase here.
Next week, on that Big River called Jazz, we’ll dig our paddles in and explore the music of Joe McPhee.
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Until then, keep on walking….