If memory serves correctly, I first encountered the music of Henry Threadgill in Cutler's Record Shop in New Haven, CT, on seeing the first Air Lp, "Air Song" (Why Not Records imported from Japan), on the Jazz "New Releases" section of the wall. Intrigued, I discovered that the trio (saxophonist, flutist, and composer Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins, and drummer Steve McCall) hailed from Chicago and were members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). By this time, I had heard the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, and Muhal Richard Abrams, fascinated as well as puzzled by this music that often eschewed typical jazz forms to look for new sounds and mixtures.
|Photo: John Rogers|
Threadgill, like a good number of his contemporaries, had served in the Armed Forces and come back to a changed United States. The Vietnam War was still raging, President Nixon had alienated a good portion of the country, and the inner city neighborhoods in major cities across the US had never recovered from the riots that had occurred before and after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. What some people heard as anger in this hybrid form of Black Music was really a major advancement in approaches to composition and improvisation by many Black composers and musicians. By the mid-1970s, many AACM musicians had been to Europe but came back to move to New York City.
tells his story in his new memoir "Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music
" (Penguin Random House). Written with Brent Hayes Edwards
, the composer/musicians takes the reader through his early years with bows to many members of his family and the various neighborhoods he lived in. We learn of his voracious appetite for learning and how he slowly but steadily learned piano, saxophone, and flute as well as to learn how to compose. Threadgill certainly played many different styles of music, from Gospel to R'n'B to Jazz to funk as so on but was open to classical music. He also was quite curious, fixating on learning how to fly and making people disappear, neither of which he was successful at. His time in the Armed Forces, especially the months he spent in Vietnam were harrowing but taught him much about the world, about community, and so much more. Coming back to Chicago and to the AACM pushed him to create his own music just as his contemporaries were doing (and many still do). We read of how he created Air with Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall as well as the groups that followed.
I was lucky enough to experience Air, hubkapaphone (that's a story unto itself) and all, in concert in Battell Chapel in New Haven. It was the Summer after Nessa Records of Chicago had issued "Air Time
", the trio's first American release. The music moved in multiple directions with melodies coming from all three musicians, rhythms stopping and starting seemingly at will––McCall was an amazing percussionist, Hopkins a brilliant bassist with a true melodic bent, and Threadgill's tart alto sax sound pushed and pulled at the fabric of the material. One can still echoes of that sound in the music Threadgill creates today.
That said, the book illuminates how the composer organizes his groups, how he mixes and matches disparate sounds, how he's more fascinated by "flow" than by "rhythm", how he and his groups deconstruct and rebuild the compositions throughout every performance. Henry Threadgill is more interested in performance than recording, fascinated by how the musicians he plays with and/or conducts deal with time and with the flow of the intervals inside the music. When you return to listen to any one of his myriad recordings after reading this book, you'll hear his music with different ears, hearing the "architecture" of each song as well as the influence of the blues on the Sextett albums, the world music components of the Make a Move ensemble, and how ZOOID mixes composition and improvisation so that one can not tell where one starts and the other ends.
In a year that has seen new biographies of Sonny Rollins and Chick Webb. "Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music" is a "must-read" for music lovers. The book goes a long way to shed light on the continually creative mind of Henry Threadgill, never dwelling on either awards or disappointments but telling a story that displays great humanity in spite of any and all roadblocks.
In addition to the new book, there is a new Threadgill album. "The Other One
" (Pi Recordings), recorded live in May of 2022 at Roulette Intermedium
in Brooklyn, NY, features the 12-member Henry Threadgill Ensemble
composed of musicians who are members of ZOOID, the Double Up Ensemble, and several newcomers to the Threadgill universe. The ensemble plays "Of Valence
", a three-movement composition influenced by percussionist Milford Graves
' study of the human heartbeat and its integration into music. "Movements I
" and "III
" are broken into nine sections with the ninth being the "Finale
" (in both). Meanwhile "Movement II
" is 16:24 long with distinct sections but not broken up like the others. Even though the instrumentation is different than any other of his groups, you can the various trademarks of the Threadgill oeuvre: the long, winding, melody lines, the deep tones of tuba and cello for the bottom, rhythms that suggest swing, blues, African music, and more. What's different is the short sections that curtail long solos but do listen to how the composer/conductor moves the sounds through the band and how they come together.
|Photo: Jeenah Moon/NYTimes|
Listen to "The Other One
" all the way through because that will help bring the music into focus. There's an excerpt below but it's like reading a short quote from a long book. Listening to music, especially "concert" music, is usually a cumulative experience. We remember moments of the pieces, the emotions we felt, perhaps an impressive solo or the rhythms that made us tap our feet. All three "Movements
" of "Of Valence
" start quietly before other instruments are added. The composer does that to pique our interest––where will the music go next, who's taking the next solo, etc.? There are many moments of strong musicianship here from violinist Sara Caswell
, clarinetist Noah Becker
, pianist David Virelles,
percussionist Craig Weinrib
, and the bravura of work of Jose Davila
(tuba) and Christopher Hoffman
(cello). That's not to discount the work of the others (all personnel listed below). The Henry Threadgill Ensemble
, its leader, and his music shines brightly on "The Other One
Henry Threadgill – composer & conductor
Alfredo Colón – alto saxophone
Noah Becker – alto saxophone, clarinet
Peyton Pleninger – tenor saxophone
Craig Weinrib – percussion, electronics
Sara Caswell – violin
Stephanie Griffin – viola
Mariel Roberts – cello
Christopher Hoffman – cello
Jose Davila – tuba
David Virelles – piano
Sara Schoenbeck – bassoon
Adam Cordero – bassoon
Here's a taste of "The Other One":