The jazz avant-garde has produced dozens of notable improvisers (not surprisingly, since improvisation is arguably the music's defining element) but relatively few great composers. Henry Threadgill is a member of that exclusive club. With his fellow Chicagoans Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams, he's one of the most original jazz composers of his generation. Threadgill's art transcends stylistic boundaries. He embraces the world of music in its entirety, from ragtime to circus marches to classical to bop, free jazz, and beyond. This might sound merely eclectic in the telling, but in truth, Threadgill always sounds like Threadgill. A given project might exploit a particular genre or odd instrumentation, but whatever the slant, it always bears its composer's inimitable personality.
Threadgill is also an alto saxophonist of distinction; his dry, heavily articulated manner is a precursor to that of a younger Chicagoan, the alto saxophonist Steve Coleman (no coincidence, one would suspect). Threadgill took up music as a child, first playing percussion in marching bands, then learning baritone sax and clarinet. He was involved with the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) from its beginnings in the early '60s, collaborating with fellow members Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell and playing in Muhal Richard Abrams' legendary Experimental Band. From 1965-1967 he toured with the gospel singer Jo Jo Morris. He then served in the military for a time, performing with an army rock band. After his discharge, he returned to Chicago, where he played in a blues band and resumed his association with Abrams and the AACM. He went on to earn his bachelor's degree in music at the American Conservatory of Music; he also studied at Governor's State University.
In 1971 he formed Reflection with drummer Steve McCall and bassist Fred Hopkins. The trio would re-form four years later as Air and would go on to record frequently to great acclaim. Their 1979 album Air Lore featured contemporary takes on such early jazz tunes as "King Porter Stomp" and "Buddy Bolden's Blues," prefiguring the wave of nostalgia that would dominate jazz in the following decade. Threadgill moved to New York in the mid-'70s, where he began forming and composing for a number of ensembles. Threadgill began showing a love for unusual instrumentation; for instance, his Sextett (actually a septet) used a cellist, and his Very Very Circus included two tubas. In the mid-'90s he landed a (short-lived) recording contract with Columbia, which produced a couple of excellent albums. Throughout the '80s and '90s Threadgill's music became increasingly polished and sophisticated.
A restless soul, he never stood still, creating for a variety of top-notch ensembles, every one different. A pair of 2001 releases for Pi Recordings illustrated this particularly well. On Up Popped the Two Lips, his Zooid ensemble combined Threadgill's alto and flute with acoustic guitar, oud, tuba, cello, and drums -- an un-jazz-like instrumentation that nevertheless grooved and swung with great agility. Everybodys Mouth's a Book featured his Make a Move band, which consisted of the leader's horns with vibes and marimba, electric and acoustic guitars, electric bass, and drums -- a more traditional setup in a way, but no less original in concept. In 2004, a live Zooid date entitled Pop Start the Tape, StoP was issued in limited edition by Hardedge. That same year, Threadgill played on Billy Bang's seminal Vietnam: Reflections.
Threadgill performed and rehearsed with both Zooid and Make a Move, but he didn't record again with either until late in 2008. Zooid cut sessions in November of that year, resulting in a pair of albums, This Brings Us To, Vol. 1 issued in 2009, followed by Vol. 2 in 2010. The collector's label Mosaic honored Threadgill by compiling his Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings in a deluxe, limited-run box set. Make a Move hit the studio again in late 2011. The sessions yielded the album Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp in June of 2013. In December, Threadgill, bassist John Lindberg, and drummer Jack DeJohnette played in Wadada Leo Smith's quartet for The Great Lakes Suites sessions -- released by TUM nearly two years later.
In May 2014, Zooid reconvened in a Brooklyn studio for two days. In August of that year, Threadgill played in DeJohnette's great AACM reunion quintet at the Chicago Jazz Festival, along with Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Larry Gray. The resulting album, Made in Chicago, was released by ECM in January 2015. In the spring, the previous year's Zooid sessions saw light as the double-disc In for a Penny, in for a Pound. The recording drew universal acclaim and topped the year-end jazz lists internationally. It also netted Threadgill the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The award was presented in April 2016, the same month that Ensemble Double Up (his new octet that included pianists David Virelles and Jason Moran) debuted with Old Locks and Irregular Verbs. In May, he received a Doris Duke Artist Award. ~ Chris Kelsey & Thom Jurek