Today is HenThread’s 70th birthday. Yay! Thanks to him for all the music through the years. Let’s get those About Time albums back in circulation in 2014. Four years ago I wrote this review for DownBeat about the Mosaic compilation. I lost my copy in our Hurricane Sandy flood – wahhh! – and it’s currently OOP, but evidently Mosaic is making more of them this year…
There’s a classic Henry Threadgill interview that finds the bandleader describing the trio Air as an “octopus,” with tentacles reaching out three different ways while still working as one. Nice image, and on point as well. The 66-year-old saxophonist has long had a talent for making music that seems larger than the number of participants would suggest possible. Clever is an adjective that’s occasionally applied to his arrangements, and indeed, compositional sleight of hand is a cornerstone of his art. You can hear it develop throughout the myriad bands and various eras documented on the eight discs of The Complete Novus and Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill and Air.
Members of the Chicago AACM in the early ‘70s, Threadgill, drummer Steve McCall, and bassist Fred Hopkins were responsible for some of the decade’s most novel small-group abstractions. As Air, they’d cut discs for the Japanese Why Not label and the Windy City’s Nessa imprint before moving to New York and connecting with producer Steve Backer and his Arista subsidiary Novus for the 1978 session that became Open Air Suit. By this time they had an approach down: collective flights of fancy were tethered by a wealth of knotty rhythm maneuvers. Live tracks from the Montreux Jazz Festival and the studio work that generated the lithe intricacies of “Card Two: The Jick or Mandrill’s Cosmic Ass,” illustrate just how deep an architectural achievement this is. It ain’t easy to make tension seem mercurial.
The trio’s most eloquent moments arise on Air Lore. Examining New Orleans through the twin filters of Jellyroll Morton and Scott Joplin, the group winds its way around “King Porter Stomp” and “The Ragtime Dance” with an anything-goes esprit that salutes their experimentation while still celebrating melody. McCall, revealing his deep sense of swing, burns throughout.
At the same time Air was refining its approach, Threadgill created X-75, a larger group featuring woodwinds, basses and voice. It opened the door to the modern classical realm, balancing euphoric pieces such as “Fe Fi Fo Fum” with works that often boasted an enchanting eeriness. Without a percussionist, the four basses were tasked with delivering the oomph. They fulfilled. “Salute to the Enema Bandit,” one of three previously-unreleased X-75 tracks here, starts out with a series of growls that are built on nothing but thrust.
This kind of idiosyncratic instrumentation was a turning point for the composer; a larger palette, filled with unlikely combinations of strings and horns, was something he embraced from that point on. His ‘80s work is flecked with orchestral allusions that fend for themselves even during the deepest jazz passages. A trio of Sextett discs on the About Time label gave way to three thrilling titles on Novus, which was newly affiliated with RCA.
You Know The Number kicked off the series, and its swirl of sound is indicative of the roiling interplay found on each of the band’s CDs. The group’s New York shows are remembered as joyous affairs. N’awlins-esque polyphony was one of the Sextett’s defining traits, and the two-drummer battery provided plenty of liftoff for the trumpet and trombone players. Threadgill, like occasional colleague David Murray, had personalized ways to voice bluster. Both ominous and audacious, “The Devil Is On The Loose And Dancin’ With A Monkey” is indicative of this era. The group’s other forte, something that’s long been a signature for the bandleader, is the idea of bewitching gloom. “Gift” fairly glows with a funereal aura, pulling you deeper into the thickening plot as each minute passes.
This template sets the parameters for the rest of the music here, albeit with memorable tweaks such as the prominence of an accordion in the mid-90s. That band, the Make a Move ensemble, stressed guitars and lowered the brass to French horn and tuba without forfeiting swagger or bounce. And if the composer’s formula started to become a tad predictable, the group’s interplay sustained its fizz. Threadgill’s charts are all about fluid counterpoint.
Perhaps his cagiest of moves has been finding a spot for his sax and flute in the middle of these whirlwinds. From Air’s “Let’s All Go Down To The Footwash” to Where’s Your Cup’s “Laughing Club,” his attack is the box set’s most tell-tale through line. Lyrical jabs chop in a way that augments the music’s inherent anxiety. There are moments where Threadgill seems to spit phrases into existence, a percussive approach bolstering “the dam’s about to bust” feeling that marks many pieces here. Ultimately it underscores the essence of this perpetually fascinating music: a beaming dedication to adventure.