I bought my first Henry Threadgill album in 1988, after seeing him in an advertisement for Dewar’s scotch. At sixteen I couldn’t buy Dewar’s, but as a fervent parishioner of the jazz church, I was intrigued by the ad’s description of Threadgill, a Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist and composer in his forties who had just finished reading John Cage’s Silence and had invented something called the “hubkaphone.” The ad also included his impertinent riposte to the ancestor worship of jazz purists like Wynton Marsalis: “Tradition is a background of ingredients; in itself it’s nothing. If you can’t make something out of it, the world can do without it.” I immediately went in search of his latest record, Easily Slip into Another World, featuring his Sextett (with two t’s at the end)—technically a septet for reeds, brass, cello, bass, and drums.
The music on Easily Slip into Another World was plainly in the tradition of jazz composers like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. And yet, like anything truly innovative, it felt thrillingly abrasive, even sacrilegious. While I could recognize some of Threadgill’s “ingredients”—blues, West Indian rhythms, the polyphony of New Orleans jazz, European modernism—I’d never heard them combined with such swaggering insouciance. The Dixieland echoes of “Spotted Dick Is Pudding,” with its growling brass dialogues and virtuosic double-time interlude, seemed so comically exaggerated that I wasn’t sure how to respond. Was Threadgill sending up the tradition, honoring it, or being provocatively ambiguous?
Then there was the album’s centerpiece, “My Rock,” a haunting torch song for the Indian vocalist Asha Puthli. It opens with a gorgeous legato passage played by the cellist Diedre Murray, accompanied by the droning plucked notes of Fred Hopkins’s bass and the drums of Pheeroan akLaff and Reggie Nicholson. After a sudden brief interruption by the horn section, Puthli addresses the listener: “Open your eyes…you’re in another world/passed yourself on the way.” She evokes this unfamiliar place, this vertiginous loss of self, with languid insinuations, then cries and shrieks as Threadgill plays wildly expressive pirouettes on alto saxophone, full of frenzy and yearning, and accompanied by lush, seductive harmonies. The song has the garish expressiveness of Weimar cabaret, the pulpy eroticism of noir.
To my adolescent ears, “My Rock” conjured an obscure and somewhat unsettling realm of sexuality, a place that (as Threadgill’s lyrics put it) will “rouse all your fears.” Since then, I’ve come to understand that its real subject is the spell cast by music, not by sex. Or more precisely, an experience of musical beauty that, because of its unfamiliarity, inspires an awe that’s hard to distinguish from terror. The Romantics called this experience of beauty’s dangerous, disorienting frontiers “the sublime.”
Threadgill is one of American music’s great Romantics and a lifelong seeker of the sublime. He once called a piece “Go to Far,” as if “far” were the name of a destination. He has resided there ever since he was a child, when he designed a “flying machine” and jumped out the window of a second-floor apartment in Chicago. He fell into the branches of a tree and then onto a garage. Even as he recovered from his injuries, he wanted to try again. “Why do you have to be so extreme?” his mother asked him. As Threadgill explains in his delightful new memoir, Easily Slip into Another World, the entire purpose of musical composition, as he sees it, is to create a radically new “sound world.” Since he emerged on the scene in the early 1970s, Threadgill has switched sound worlds every decade or so, with a frequency, willfulness, and refusal of nostalgia rivaled only by Miles Davis. In an era in which musicians increasingly appear onstage armed with manifestos of righteous intent as well as their instruments, he continues to insist on the liberating force of musical abstraction, its power to free composers and audiences alike.
Threadgill’s originality as a composer lies in large part in his orchestration. He is an inventor of startling, at times even perverse instrumental combinations: piano and four guitars, for example, or saxophone and three cellos, or the doubling up of two tubas and two electric guitars in his 1990s ensemble Very Very Circus. Air, his first group, resembled a standard trio for saxophone, bass, and drums, but Threadgill also performed on the hubkaphone mentioned in that Dewar’s ad—a percussion instrument that he built out of hubcaps, reminiscent of a readymade sculpture by his friend David Hammons. Threadgill’s orchestrations often look as madcap as his boyhood flying machine. The wonder is how often the experiments take flight.
Threadgill’s music—particularly his work with the Sextett, arguably his greatest ensemble—is somewhat reminiscent of Mingus’s stormy 1960s suites and of the historically minded, ironical arrangements that Archie Shepp created for his early Impulse albums. But Threadgill has drifted much further from jazz, a term he avoids and which has become less and less applicable to his art. Its range of references is breathtaking, encompassing any “ingredient” that serves his purposes. Yet for all his allusions to historical styles from New Orleans rags to calypso and tango, Threadgill’s music does not traffic in pastiche or postmodern irony. On the contrary, it has a ferocious sense of conviction—even, or rather especially, when he’s at his most irreverent. What unites his various sound worlds is his imagination, by turns whimsical and incendiary, raw and sophisticated, exuberant and death-haunted.
This is art music that celebrates the ritual power of social music, its relationship to dance, parades, religious observance, mourning, and other forms of collective pageantry.1 It’s also a showcase for what has strangely become the most overlooked of Threadgill’s gifts: his extraordinary sound and phrasing on saxophone, clarinet, and flute, which are as distinctive as his writing. Threadgill has an ability to conjure an intense, often agitated sense of urgency. He never allows you to rest, because he never settles into a groove or plays a familiar lick. His sound is a permanent antidote to complacency.
To write this book, Threadgill turned to Brent Hayes Edwards, a professor of literature at Columbia University and a gifted scholar of jazz and black aesthetics. Their collaboration is a Threadgillian study in contrasts: a working-class striver turned bohemian who lives between the East Village and Goa, Threadgill sees himself as a man of the streets and, unlike many of his peers, has never taught at a university; Edwards, two decades his junior, is the son of a federal circuit court judge, born into the black professional elite and fluent in the contemporary academy’s most rarefied idioms. The voice, as in most coauthored memoirs, is a composite. Threadgill’s slight drawl—a southern residue that has lingered in the speech of many black Chicagoans of his generation—is missing here, and he speaks with greater formality than in interviews. But his outlook comes through with irresistible pungency, and Edwards has captured his vision and given form to his artistic path with the elegance, rigor, and meticulousness that characterize his own scholarship.
Of Threadgill’s intimate life—his relationships with the mothers of his three children, his offstage dealings with other musicians—we learn very little. He often seems more determined to refute misconceptions about his art than to shed light on it. Threadgill, who once dreamed of forming a funeral band, insists that he’s never written a dirge, even though some of his greatest pieces are slow-moving, solemn tunes whose titles invoke death, such as “Cremation” and “Soft Suicide at the Baths.” As for the inspiration behind his famously wacky titles—“Salute to the Enema Bandit,” “Paper Toilet,” “The Devil Is on the Loose and Dancin’ with a Monkey,” “Jenkins Boys, Again, Wish Somebody Die, It’s Hot”—he coyly asserts that they’re “another source of stimulation,” not secrets to be deciphered, and that “ultimately the listener gets more when the stimulation is not explained.”2 That may be true, but it’s fascinating to learn that the last title is an oblique allusion to stories he heard as a child: in the cotton fields, he was told, plantation workers were given a day off only when a white person died; his grandmother always said “That’s the Jenkins boys” whenever it was hot outside.
Threadgill’s caginess, his refusal to provide “a listening guide” or satisfy the reader’s “desire for transparency,” is understandable, if hardly promising for a memoir. Lurid tales of the “jazz life” have a long history, often pandering to the voyeurism of white audiences. As a black artist, Threadgill knows that his memoir will likely be shelved alongside books like Miles, Davis’s notoriously profane autobiography, written with the poet Quincy Troupe, in which heroin addiction, hustling, and sexual cruelty at times eclipse the subject of music and creativity, rather than alongside the memoirs of classical composers such as John Adams and Philip Glass, which would clearly be his preference. But Threadgill’s resistance to the confessional may have other, more personal origins. “I don’t go back,” he remarked in an interview at the Library of Congress. “Going back has been destructive in my life.” Nonetheless, Easily Slip into Another World gives us a spirited, often picaresque account of Threadgill’s life as a composer and the forces that shaped his imagination.
It opens with a tribute to his great-grandfather Peyton Robinson. Born in the 1870s, during Reconstruction, Robinson acquired some of the best land in Alabama, defended it with a gun on his hip, and called no white man sir. According to family lore, Robinson and his brother left for Chicago after killing a group of whites who’d tried to cheat them. “My great-grandfather simply refused to play by the rules. ‘Fuck the rules’—that was his attitude: ‘I make the rules.’” Whenever Robinson came over to visit his great-grandson, looking “like some apparition from another century” in his three-piece wool suit and top hat, the young Threadgill “loved to think that I came from such a singularity—from an ancestor who seemed to move through the world entirely on his own terms.” There’s a lot of Peyton Robinson in his great-grandson.
Threadgill was born in 1944 on the South Side of Chicago to a mother who worked as an accountant at a local bank and a father who ran a gambling house. His parents separated when he was seven, and a few years later he moved with his mother to a mixed neighborhood in Englewood, between 59th and 60th Streets. They were only the second black family on the block, and he soon learned never to cross 59th Street. “It was all white on the other side of that street,” and when he and a friend wandered into a wood factory to gather scraps to make toys, they were chased by a mob of whites who “came out like hunting dogs.” Threadgill also recalls being shot at by the police when, as an adolescent, he broke into someone’s home with a group of friends. He realized early on that he would have “experiences a white kid would never have.”
His most vivid memories of childhood, however, are musical. “I go back in my memory and I don’t see: I hear,” Threadgill writes. Listening to Studs Terkel’s radio show, he heard the sounds of classical music, Serbian and Polish music, Mexican music, jazz, blues, flamenco, and Central African and Indian music. By the time he was five or six, he had taught himself to play boogie-woogie on his mother’s piano. When he saw Howlin’ Wolf perform at the Maxwell Street Market, “the power of his sound almost had me frozen in my footsteps.” He had an even more electrifying experience when he first heard Charlie Parker’s music. “This is the door,” he told himself, and when his mother gave him a tenor saxophone, he walked right through it, enrolling at fifteen at the Chicago School of Music. He stenciled the name of his hero, Sonny Rollins, in black capital letters on his saxophone case, and once talked to John Coltrane between sets when Coltrane came to town to perform with his quartet.
Most saxophonists learn their instrument by memorizing, imitating, and often transcribing classic solos. Yet as much as he worshiped Coltrane and Rollins, Threadgill made an early, fateful decision not to emulate their solos—or even to play standards. “When you’re an artist, you’ve got to be careful in your training,” he writes. “Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.” While his peers were trying to play Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Threadgill wrote his own compositions. (The first was called “Ornette.”) He also began to attend concerts by the University of Chicago Contemporary Chamber Players, where he first encountered the work of Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, and Luciano Berio. Rendered speechless by Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire, he could tell that it had some relevance to his ambitions as a composer, even if his future didn’t lie in classical music. He was even more impressed by mavericks like Edgard Varèse, whose obstinate radicalism struck him as “a sort of model of what I wanted to obtain,” and Claude Debussy, whose pentatonic music was “ultimately beyond anything one can say about it analytically.”
As a student at Wilson Junior College, Threadgill fell in with a group of like-minded young black musicians, notably the saxophonists Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell and the bassist Malachi Favors, who were emboldened by the free jazz revolution launched by Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler but were just as eager to invent new forms as they were to overthrow old ones. They found a mentor in Muhal Richard Abrams, a pianist and composer of a cerebral, somewhat mystical temperament. Inspired by Abrams’s ethos of self-determination and his “breadth—his unboundedness,” Threadgill joined his group, the Experimental Band. And in 1965 Abrams’s ensemble evolved into a black composers’ collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which became one of the most influential avant-garde institutions of the past half-century.
Threadgill, however, wasn’t there for the launch, since, under the influence of a pious woman he was seeing at the time, he’d gone on the road with a revivalist band led by the traveling preacher Horace Sheppard. (He also traded in his tenor sax for an alto, since it sounded closer to the human voice.) Threadgill made good use of his time in church. His work with Sheppard, as well as in blues, mariachi, and polka bands, forced him to develop the ability to move an audience and imbued his sound with its sinewy physicality, its ecstatic, vocalized fervor.
Threadgill learned a different set of musical lessons in the US Army, in which he enlisted in 1966, having learned that his draft number was about to be called. Stationed with the 437th Army Band at Fort Riley, outside of Junction City, Kansas, he developed an appreciation for country music, the omnipresence of which at first “felt like a devious form of torture invented specifically to drive me crazy, tune by tune.” A composer like himself, he concluded, could never “close the door completely,” lest he “shut out something…that might prove valuable for my own music.”
His belief in keeping musical doors open was not shared by the US Army. In the summer of 1967 Threadgill was asked to create a medley of patriotic anthems for a gathering of military, political, and religious leaders. He wrote a series of arrangements with the “angularity and dissonance” that he loved in the music of Stravinsky and Thelonious Monk. Less than eight bars into the performance, the Catholic archbishop cried out, “Blasphemy!” For this “musical peccadillo,” Threadgill was sent to Vietnam and reassigned to the 4th Infantry Division in Pleiku. By September, he was playing for platoons, with his rifle close at hand; at one concert, the band was ambushed by North Vietnamese fighters. During the Tet Offensive, a jeep in which he was traveling tumbled into a ravine and flipped over; his herniated discs left him with pain that “still takes me back to Pleiku.”
Threadgill depicts his adventures in Vietnam in scenes as hallucinatory as Michael Herr’s Dispatches—or one of his own song titles. He’s lured by a prostitute into a cellar full of enemy troops and then mysteriously released. Recovering from a case of “triple-strength gonorrhea,” he stumbles upon an underground commune led by a black deserter known as Dirty Dan, living a “wild existence on the margins of a wild war.” After the piano player in his band is busted for opium dealing, Threadgill ends up being discharged, but only after he’s sent to a processing center adjacent to a violent prison for “the sickest dudes on the planet,” a place called Long Binh Jail—LBJ.
The war “reshaped my insides,” Threadgill writes, and left him “fucked up.” (“Demons from the war,” he admits, cost him his first marriage, to Cathy Slade, the mother of his son, Melin.) Yet it had some unexpected benefits. Among the indigenous people known as Montagnards, he discovered a community that had achieved “what seemed clearly to me to be a higher level of ethical achievement” than the church people he’d known back home. The battlefield also temporarily “solved the age-old American race problem.” Touring South Vietnam with a mixed-race band, Threadgill experienced a rare kind of “matter-of-fact cross-racial solidarity.” Once he returned, it vanished again, like a mirage in the jungle.
Vietnam forever altered his relationship to sound. “One of the main ways that war transforms you has to do with your sense of hearing,” he writes. It’s not just the “sounds of helicopters and distant howitzer fire,” but “the voices of the Montagnards, or the unfamiliar pattern of rain on a triple-canopy jungle.” Unlike the late violinist Billy Bang, who made a pair of moving albums about his experiences in the war (performed by fellow veterans including Threadgill), he has never written a piece about Vietnam. But his music has always been marked by a bewildering simultaneity of expression, unexpected eruptions and collisions, moods that shift between wariness and aggression, and forms of counterpoint that demand intensified focus from the listener. Threadgill says that he’s found inspiration in studies of trench warfare that focus on “multiple levels of engagement: some things going on above ground and other things happening in tunnels. As I saw firsthand in Vietnam, tunnels can be hidden mazes.” He designed the hubkaphone to recreate the sound of the gongs he heard in Montagnard villages. Motifs evocative of military music, often distorted by dissonance, recur in his work. To lift a phrase from the philosopher Louis Althusser, the war is an “absent cause” of Threadgill’s sound—present not as content, but as form.
After his return to Chicago in 1969, Threadgill enrolled at the American Conservatory, where he played Poulenc and Hindemith works for clarinet and studied composition with Stella Roberts, a student of Nadia Boulanger. At the conservatory “there was no such thing as jazz,” he says, but on the South Side, Threadgill and his friends in the AACM were carrying out a revolution in what they called “black creative music,” guided by an ethos that fused Malcolm X’s insistence on collective self-determination and a Whitmanesque gospel of democratic individualism.
By then Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman had established the Art Ensemble of Chicago with Malachi Favors and the trumpeter Lester Bowie; Anthony Braxton had recorded his epochal solo saxophone album, For Alto; and the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was developing a new approach to improvisation, based on equal units of sound and silence.3 (Threadgill remembers stopping by Smith’s apartment and finding him poring over Anton Webern scores.) The musicians of the AACM sought not merely to create new music but to recast the terms in which it was discussed. “Green as most of us were,” Threadgill recalls, “we weren’t intimidated at the idea of having to become the historians and explicators of our own creativity.”
In 1972 he created one of the AACM’s most successful bands, Air (originally called Reflections), with the bassist Fred Hopkins and the drummer Steve McCall. Hopkins, who’d taken up his instrument after seeing Pablo Casals on television, had the deep, reverberating sound of Chicago bass players like Wilbur Ware and an exceptional bowing technique. McCall, a decade older than Threadgill, had played with Dexter Gordon and Marion Brown and could alternate fluidly between dexterous bop drumming and avant-garde percussion.
Although Threadgill was its principal composer, Air worked as a collective, emphasizing group interaction in the manner of the Ahmad Jamal Trio, their model. The name, he writes, “suggested a quality or substance that was fundamental, even ubiquitous, yet hard to see and hard to grasp.” It also evoked emptiness and negative space, something the group exploited to haunting effect in “Subtraction,” a contemplative work for flute, pizzicato bass, and percussion, influenced by Kabuki theater and punctuated by unusually long silences. In such pieces, Threadgill aimed to “write the silhouette of the thing rather than the thing itself.”
Yet Air ultimately made a name for itself because of its ingenious glosses on popular forms. Its signature album, Air Lore (1979), featured Threadgill’s arrangements of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, originally written for a theatrical production in Chicago. Witty, soulful, and propelled by McCall’s crisp, shimmering drumming, Air’s covers were joyous exercises in reimagination, discovering tunes within tunes, shifting tempo in the manner of a parade band. Air reconnected the black avant-garde to a vanished world of jazz before bebop, providing—as Threadgill and McCall wrote in an early program note—a “broad musical experience which is historical, and yet contemporary in nature.”
Air won a following in the loft scene in New York City, where Threadgill and his bandmates relocated in the mid-1970s. But by the end of the decade he craved “other colors,” which required a larger ensemble with “a thickness, a density in the sound.” This search eventually led to the creation of his Sextett, the group he led throughout the 1980s. The Sextett’s seven members were organized into four sections, as in a symphony orchestra: brass (trumpet and trombone), strings (bass and cello), winds (saxophones, flute, clarinet, all played by Threadgill), and percussion (two drummers, one playing right on the beat, the other just behind, so that the beat would feel “as big as all outdoors”).
The sumptuousness of its sound owed much to the cellist Diedre Murray, whose playing led Threadgill to “fall in love with the possibilities of the instrument.” Murray and Hopkins gave the Sextett its deep bottom, its affinity with early-twentieth-century black string bands, as well as a searing, occasionally bombastic romanticism. And on albums like When Was That? (1982), Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket (1983), and Rag, Bush and All (1989), Threadgill composed some of the most memorable pieces of his career: the ruminative adagios often described as dirges, fanfares and marches, alluringly dissonant abstractions, bustling calypsos inspired by his travels in the Caribbean, and humorous reworkings of Dixieland jazz and swing.4
Threadgill’s next group, Very Very Circus, formed in the early 1990s, was an even more radical departure from the tradition.5 Instead of a bass, he used two tubas, each paired with electric guitar, “running along parallel to one another but doing completely different things.” The wind instruments—Threadgill’s alto saxophone and flute; trombone or French horn—could then “either move on both rails at the same time or else bounce from rail to rail.”
On albums like Too Much Sugar for a Dime (1993), the layering of sounds—the electric guitars of Brandon Ross and Masujaa, the tubas of Marcus Rojas and Edwin Rodriguez, and Gene Lake’s drums—is dense, churning, and hypnotic, inspiring some of Threadgill’s most exciting improvisations. In “Little Pocket Size Demons,” the opening track, his playing on alto sax has a kind of mirthful fury, as if he were pushing his way through enemy lines. The aim of Very Very Circus, he says, was to evoke the feeling of “dancing on a live wire,” and as I recall from its concerts in New York at the time, you could almost taste the music’s audacity, its invigorating sense of danger. It was sometimes so dense that you couldn’t take it all in—at least not simultaneously. But that “sheer too-muchness” was precisely the effect Threadgill was after. “As any kid can tell you,” he writes, “the thrill of the circus has everything to do with how much is going on: lions and tigers and elephants and bears and clowns and acrobats and the flying trapeze.”
Threadgill continued his exploration of electric textures in his next band, the quintet Make a Move, with Brandon Ross, Stomu Takeishi on five-string fretless bass, J.T. Lewis on drums, and Tony Cedras on accordion and harmonium, only now it was the carnival, not the circus, that the music conjured, with an inviting and somewhat ominous sensuality. In the transfixing tango “100 Year Old Game,” on the album Where’s Your Cup? (1997), one of his strongest of the decade, he and Cedras echo each other’s lines with a fluency and complicity that rivals Threadgill’s work with Murray. But Threadgill soon came to see his new group as “the last step” in his search for a music “beyond the confines of diatonic harmony…. I knew that ship was going to sink. So I was looking for a life vest…. I finally found it in Goa.”
He’d been drawn to the former Portuguese colony ever since his first visit in the early 1990s, when an old woman came up to him and said, in English, “You belong here,” before disappearing into the bushes. Not long after, at a café in Bombay, he met his wife Senti, a singer from Nagaland, a small state in northeast India on the border with Myanmar. They bought a mansion in Goa, where they raised their daughter, Nhumengula, born in 1996.
In his first few years in Goa, Threadgill read books on astronomy, composed, and savored the wonderful improbability of his new life, which made him ever more aware of “how parochial we are” in the West—not least in musical conservatories. He composed arresting pieces for instrumentalists with whom he didn’t perform and began to experiment with non-Western instruments, including the pipa, a four-string plucked lute from China, and the oud. He also returned to his study of the music of Varèse, under whose influence he began to develop a system of musical organization based on “intervallic relationships”—sets of intervals derived from three-note chords—rather than on tonal centers. “I didn’t invent anything,” he marvels.
I just discovered something—a complete world, a chromatic world, with all its rules of gravity already established—already there in the physics of well-tempered harmony. Another dimension, hidden right in front of us.
This discovery led to the formation in 2001 of Threadgill’s longest-running group, Zooid, originally a sextet, now a quintet with José Davila on tuba, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar, Christopher Hoffman on cello, and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. (“In biology,” Threadgill explains, “a zooid is an organic cell or organized body that moves independently within a living organism.”) Threadgill’s bandmates in Zooid are superb musicians who’ve committed themselves to his system and helped develop it into a quirky yet supple language for nonidiomatic improvisation.
While the themes in his music for Zooid share the astringency of his writing for the Sextett and Very Very Circus, they’re considerably stripped down. The pieces on In for a Penny, In for a Pound, which earned Threadgill the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music, are concertos in multiple sections, rather than traditional song structures. Rhythmically intricate grooves go by like waves, interspersed with discrete events involving different permutations of the various instruments (cello, guitar, and tuba; saxophone and drums; drums and cello): “zones of intensities,” in Varèse’s words. The contrapuntal textures that Threadgill creates here are often ravishing, and there’s a remarkable sense of plenitude, even in the music’s sparest moments (for example, Kavee’s unaccompanied, richly atmospheric solos), because we sense the presence behind it of a powerful orchestral imagination.
As singular as Zooid’s music is, it contains traces of Threadgill’s earlier bands, such as the use of tuba (Very Very Circus) and cello (the Sextett). The more skeletal pieces hark back to Air works like “Subtraction,” with its focus on space and timbre. What you won’t hear in Zooid is the kind of “bottom” that Fred Hopkins’s bass provided, ensuring a feeling of “the one,” the downbeat. Threadgill says that he’s no longer interested in “that tantalizing expectation of the downbeat” but rather in what happens “if you never get off the one.” The result is an even more radical declaration of independence from traditional jazz—a more thoroughgoing subtraction—than “Subtraction” achieved. Fortunately the music is saved from academicism thanks to the bluesy, expressively hoarse tones of Threadgill’s alto sax, especially on slower pieces that recall his adagio works for the Sextett.
“I sit and dream up grand fantasies of orchestration,” Threadgill writes. In recent years, he’s been able to realize some of those fantasies with a series of new bands: the octet Ensemble Double Up, for two pianos, drums, tuba, cello, and two saxophones; the ensemble 14 or 15 Kestra: AGG (for fourteen or fifteen musicians); and the twelve-piece group heard on his most recent album, The Other One (2023), a sprawling, hour-long work for horns, strings, percussion, and piano, conducted by Threadgill, who does not perform.
I confess to being ambivalent about his recent orchestral compositions. The Other One has recognizably Threadgillian elements—taut, off-kilter arrangements for horns and strings; asymmetrical grooves and hockets; the syncopated murmur of José Davila’s tuba—and there is, as ever, a formidable sense of confidence and mastery on display. But the music suffers somewhat because Threadgill isn’t there to give it focus, and as fine as the soloists are, it leaves the impression of a looser, semi-improvised version of the work of mid-century atonal composers like Ralph Shapey, who conducted the Chicago Contemporary Chamber Players when Threadgill attended their concerts as a young man. The song titles—“Sections 1–2,” “Section 12B (Violin Interlude),” etc.—have none of Threadgill’s trademark wit, and the music doesn’t initially appear to have much more.
I had always thought that Threadgill’s achievement as a composer lay in his orchestral flair, his storytelling gifts, his reinventions of vernacular forms, and his majestically gritty saxophone playing. But in his memoir, he takes a curiously more academic view, characterizing his career as a search for new systems of musical organization, culminating in his intervallic breakthrough. Composers often understand their intentions very differently from their admirers, and Threadgill is hardly the only composer to have tired of the major-minor scale or to seek to ground his music in an orderly and rationalized system: consider Schoenberg or Threadgill’s AACM colleague Anthony Braxton. Through the intervallic method, he has created a unique form of process music whose form is its content, based on interlocking grooves and a resistance to harmonic resolution. It’s a sturdy foundation for a new school of improvisation, and to Threadgill, who’s understandably proud of his creation, “this sound world still feels boundless: an open area of possibilities to explore.”
The question is whether, as with the twelve-tone serialism that Schoenberg established as a solution to free atonality, the foundations are too sturdy for the music’s own good. Has Threadgill liberated himself from the straitjacket of diatonicism, or put his wonderfully unruly imagination on a restrictive diet? When I first listened to The Other One, I found myself longing for the other Threadgill, the wry and subtle melodist, the magpie maker of cabaret and carnival music, of adagios and tangos, and wishing that he might do to his rules what he did to the rules of the US Army band: break them. But the more time I’ve spent with the album, the more its patterns, intricacies, and even its wit have revealed themselves to me. Threadgill is still writing from a place called far, opening the door to a different way of listening.
In the mid-1980s, Threadgill led the marvelous Society Situation Dance Band, an ensemble for as many as eighteen players with grooves as heavy as the James Brown Band. It never recorded, but YouTube has clips of an extraordinary performance at a jazz festival in Hamburg: youtube.com/watch?v=yhpKRJYZPUE. ↩
Edwards’s Epistrophies (2017), a study of “jazz and the literary imagination,” includes an outstanding essay on Threadgill’s song titles, which Edwards describes as a “micropoetics” whose aim is to “shift the burden of interpretation to the listener.” ↩
See my review of Smith’s album Solo: Reflections and Meditiations on Monk in these pages, February 8, 2018. ↩
To appreciate just how unusual this group was, you need only listen to its six albums alongside the work of the other great New York–based large ensemble of the 1980s, the octet led by the tenor saxophonist David Murray (in which Threadgill played alto, in one of his rare gigs as a sideman). While Murray’s arrangements brilliantly fused the raucous energy of the avant-garde with the statelier tones of mid-century swing bands like the Duke Ellington Orchestra, they mostly respected the themes-solos-recapitulation conventions of straight-ahead jazz. ↩
As Edwards observes, “Since very is an adverb, it forces us to hear circus not as a noun…but as an adjective.” ↩