Where does one begin when talking about an artist as groundbreaking as Henry Threadgill? Do you start with his high school marching band? His studies at the American Conservatory of Music or his time with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians? Someone else might start with his Pulitzer Prize, awarded to his 2015 release with Zooid, In For a Penny, In For a Pound. Maybe we can let his history contain the same modularity that his compositions do and allow each record in his enormous discography to float and buzz as electrons around a nucleus.
Born into a generation that would go on to produce post-bop, avant-garde jazz, and eventually rock and roll, Threadgill and his music were immediately thrust into a strange, morphing field of sound—if not born directly into it. He grew up in post-war America, and though he was not fully active as a composer until the 1960s, the country’s recent past was tied up into the arrangements of this legendary musician. Still today, with his boundary-pushing band, Zooid, he is creating music that understands the American consciousness.
After spending many years playing percussion, sax, and flute all over Chicago, Threadgill spent a few years moving up the ranks in the Army as a musician during the late 1960s, eventually being promoted to composer-arranger before being injured during the Tet Offensive while on guard duty. Prior to this service, he’d spent much of his time playing in a range of styles, including parade music, blues, polka, and church music. Initially, at least within the higher ranks of jazz, there was a resistance to the avant-garde compositions being produced by the younger generation. This didn’t deter Threadgill; he kept performing in any venue he could, through any genre he could, while collecting the ideas he would eventually spin into the jazz tapestries we’re celebrating today.
One key node in Threadgill’s career is the AACM (the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), the influential Chicago-based group of improvising musicians that he cofounded in the late 1960s along with legends like Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell. “In the AACM,” Threadgill says in an essay for the Walker by Greg Tate, “what was happening was an expression of what I was about, and the moment. I knew that it expressed the times… the revolution in America, God is dead, America shooting down its kids, the [Vietnam] War, the questioning of traditional philosophies…. I was tied into that moment.” (Threadgill played at the Walker with fellow AACM members Jack DeJohnette during a festival celebrating AACM’s 50th anniversary.)
In the 1970s, Threadgill was living in New York City and blooming into the composer we know today. His group Air recomposed classic ragtime songs without the piano, replacing it with saxophones. (For any young listeners who may not understand the brevity of that move, let me put it this way: this was Kid A three decades before Kid A.) It was a complete reimagining of something we thought we knew, only to find the façade quickly shattered by innovation. Between the time of Air and the beginning of Zooid, Threadgill led and performed in many groups that included an array of well-known and underground jazz musicians.
Threadgill’s work is complex, yet most aspects of it are immediately accessible. It can inspire in the listener the urge to relisten, rethink, and trust in the ideas of the musicians. You have to suspend expectation in the same way you would sitting in a theater, curtains yet to rise; what happens once they do may be just as big of a surprise to the performers as it is to the audience. There is a lot to unpack, even after extensive listening—but I think the experience comes in trying to work in translations. His music is about deconstructing the pieces of a composition in the same way CERN looks to break apart the fundamental particles of matter. There are many moving pieces in his music, but they often rotate around a constant center. On some Threadgill tracks, the center is the drum set (or sets), sometimes it is a low-range brass instrument like the tuba or trombone. Groove, in Threadgill’s music, can often be an illusion, or perhaps ‘mirage’ is more apt: an apparition that is so convincingly manifest that it might as well be real.
Another one of Threadgill’s most notable eccentricities in arrangement is the prominence of cello in his later works. The acoustic, hollow sound of the cello can oftentimes have an arresting effect, a result that is all a matter of context. Rather than warm, drawn out notes full of vibrato and lyricism, the cello is tasked with playing just as briskly and abrasively as the percussion. In a way, Threadgill is drawing out a deeper nature of the instrument, proving that a bow on a string is just as percussive as sticks on a drumhead. Pair this unique sound with virtuosic flute and you’ve got a jazz band that may look different from the one you were in during high school.
Celebrating Henry: A Threadgill Festival takes part in two evenings, each entirely singular events. Composer, performer, and cellist Michelle Kinney has curated the Friday night performance by inviting 24 Twin Cities musicians to form ensembles and perform selections from the 40 plus years of Threadgill’s career. These groups have formed for this concert only, which means the audience should come prepared to experience the unexpected, as the bands conjure up the spirit of Threadgill’s compositions in nuanced ways. Kinney says the groups are “made up of friends, peers, and colleagues who have worked together or have found inspiration in each other.” The “leaders” helped direct the formation of groups based on musicians they have worked with before, among other things.
Opening Friday’s festival is Too Much Dime, led by Chris Cunningham. They’ll first be performing a transcription of “Try Some Ammonia,” off Threadgill’s 1993 album Too Much Sugar for a Dime. Originally recorded with his group Very Very Circus, it’s a long piece from an album that explored darker areas than we’d previously heard Threadgill explore. Too Much Dime will also be diving into a different side of Threadgill with a piece from his 1996 album with Make A Move, where we find him blending his all-out inventiveness with a more recognizable and traditional mode of jazz. At the time, critics described the album as post-bop, meaning it contains an outside, contemporary structure that Threadgill takes and paints over with an avant-garde gloss.
The next group, Thank 2OO Very Much For Your ID, led collectively by its members, will be performing a piece from that same Make A Move album as well as a piece from Song Out of My Trees, a 1994 release that featured our esteemed musical curator and cellist Kinney, who is also the bandleader of the third group.
Suddenly Is Found will be performing a special piece from Subject to Change, a piece that originally has lyrics from jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, but here will be performed by Mankwe Ndosi, a vocalist from the Twin Cities who is already cementing her legacy as a local musical icon. This is also one of the larger groups in the festival, containing up to 10 members.
Charles Avenue Congress, co-led by Nathan Hanson and Davu Seru, finally gets around to bringing out some Air tunes—kind of. Technically, they’re playing a song by New Air, which added Cassandra Wilson to the original group. Charcoal, led by Anthony Cox, will be performing another song from Too Much Sugar for a Dime before almost every single musician from the night convenes on the stage for the finale: a performance of the Bermuda Blues, the opening track on Threadgill’s Sextett album You Know the Number.
The second night of the festival will open with what NPR jazz critic Nate Chinen called his best live concert in 2018: Harriet Tubman, the band. Comprised of core members Brandon Ross, Melvin Gibbs, and J. T. Lewis, this group is a powerhouse of cross-genre fusion. Blending funk, rock, the avant-garde and more, Harriet Tubman has spent years searching for that same intangible essence of music that Threadgill has been searching for. Its members are all alums of Threadgill’s bands, which makes their performance at this event all the more special.
Headlining the festival is Henry Threadgill and Zooid. After a night of accomplished musicians relaying their renditions of Threadgill’s music, we get to dive head first into riverhead itself—the source of all this sound. Here, again, words fall short. There is nothing to be said for this except what the music can say. “Henry’s work is always a few miles ahead of and around several unanticipated corners than what you think he’s up to,” said Kinney. “The code is never fully cracked, which allows for a lifetime of interest and compelling listening. The energy of his music is continually lifting higher and higher, like a cyclone.”