Henry Threadgill hasn’t fomented the kind of jazz revolution that Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, or Ornette Coleman did. Nor is he regarded as the fountainhead of a movement like pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, the founding father of Chicago’s avant-garde Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. But as this magnificent eight-CD box set makes abundantly clear, the iconoclastic flutist, composer, and bandleader has repeatedly reinvented his own music with unpredictable moves that set him apart as an utter original.
Born in Chicago, Threadgill worked with Abrams as an early member of the AACM and launched his career in earnest after serving in Vietnam and returning to Chicago in 1969. His first band of import was Air, with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall. This collection picks up seven years into the Air story, in 1978, and catches the trio in full swing, reprising two New York studio albums, Open Air Suit and Airlore, and the live festival recording Montreux Suisse Air. The original line-up, which lasted until 1982, distinguished itself as the premiere jazz trio of its era. McCall (who died in 1989), Hopkins (who passed in 1999), and Threadgill (still going strong at 66) enjoyed the kind of instinctive interplay associated with the great piano trios led by Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett.
Whether playing Threadgill originals, collective improvisations, or muscular arrangements of early jazz classics by Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, Air pumped energy and excitement into every rhythmic twist, every harmonic surprise, and every melodic curlicue. A marching band quality characterizes some of the meters, but the beats are never simple. When Threadgill hammers on his homemade hubkaphone (a percussion rack of hubcaps), the polyrhythms reach fever pitch. And his trade-offs between flute and alto, tenor, and baritone sax add an orchestral versatility: John Philip Sousa meets Sun Ra.
In 1979, Threadgill began channelling Air’s supercharged sensibility into complex projects with such names as X-75 (reeds, voice, basses), Sextett (with seven players on reeds, brass, cello, bass, and percussion), Carry the Day, (featuring acoustic and electric guitars, violin, French horn, and tubas), and Make a Move (bringing in fretless electric bass, accordion, and harmonium). Carry the Day and Make a Move made some of the most intriguing music of the 1990s and led logically to Zooid, Threadgill’s brilliant group of the past decade. (Zooid’s This Brings Us To, Volume 1 was reviewed in Issue 198).
Threadgill has experimented radically. Dozens of established and rising stars of post-modern jazz—including Joseph Jarman, Frank Lacy, Amina Claudine Myers, Brandon Ross, and Myra Melford—have moved through his groups, each adding a distinctive voice. But the leader’s singular vision generates an aesthetic consistency that’s astounding, whether the temperament is playful or somber, whether the feel is funky or classical. Like the work of Duke Ellington or Charles Mingus, it should all be thought of as “Threadgill music” rather than jazz..
The sonics of so many different sessions have been brought onto a relatively level listening field. If the Air tracks breathe most freely, many of the larger band performances have a more- tightly-focused-ensemble coziness and warmth.