Henry Threadgill's Zooid: Form Through Independence

Henry Threadgill i i

Composer and woodwind player Henry Threadgill says he draws inspiration from nonmusical sources like science and literature. David Redfern hide caption

itoggle caption David Redfern
Henry Threadgill

Composer and woodwind player Henry Threadgill says he draws inspiration from nonmusical sources like science and literature.

David Redfern

Composer and woodwind player Henry Threadgill has been combining chamber music with improvisation for almost half a century. His work began with his membership in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago in the 1960s; continued with his trio, Air, in the '70s; and remains vital with his current group, Zooid.

The 66-year-old bandleader's latest offering — his first studio album in eight years — is called This Brings Us To ... Volume 1.

Threadgill says he draws inspiration from nonmusical sources: everything from the sciences to visual and performing arts to literature, including the novels of James Joyce and the mysteries of Agatha Christie.

"She wrote Hercule Poirot — she didn't even introduce him until about two or three chapters from the end," Threadgill says. "That's unbelievable. For about 17 chapters, this woman kept this piece going without the main character coming in. That, to me, is exactly what I'm looking for at all times, that kind of way of doing things."

Threadgill's guitarist, Liberty Ellman, gave an example at a recent performance in New York's Jazz Gallery.

"One person might solo on a certain part of the piece. Then we'll go to another part of the piece," Ellman says. "Someone else will solo on that. Then we might play the melody for the first time, or we might just play part of the melody, go to a different solo. And each piece has a completely different form."

The quintet features drums, acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and tuba alternating with trombone. Threadgill switches between flute and alto sax. The band's name, Zooid, is a term for independent organisms that work together in a colony, like coral. Threadgill says that, similar to the biological zooid, the music is about multiple independent voices coming together to create a whole.

"It's not chordal-based," Threadgill says. "It's contrapuntal music — everyone is playing these different little melodies and phrases, you know. Harmony happens, but the harmony is incidental to the counterpoint chatter."

Ecstatic Fun, Intellectual Vigor

As challenging as the music might sound, New York Times critic Nate Chinen says that what makes Threadgill's difficult music accessible is rhythm.

"In this band, Zooid, in particular, there's a lot of 'fractured funk,' " Chinen says. "It's as if you took a hypnotic James Brown bass line and drum part, and then you kind of chopped it up, applied almost a sort of deconstruction to it, and then reassembled it to look like some kind of strange new creation."

"You know, I don't think of it as particularly dissonant music. I actually think it's very singable. It's like a very sophisticated folk music," Ellman says. "There's no other group I ever played with that has this sort of combination of ecstatic fun and intellectual rigor. And I've learned a lot about composition."

Chinen says Threadgill has come up with a new way of creating jazz — that he's defined his own language, his own system, for making experimental music within a strict set of rules.

"He isn't just interested in writing forms that will be played in a conventional way," Chinen says. "He actually wants to change the way that the music takes shape. The way that musicians respond to one another."

Threadgill says art is supposed to be challenging, and that he doesn't care if his audience likes his music, as long as it moves them.

"My only hope is they'll have a reaction, and the reaction doesn't have to be positive," Threadgill says. "It could be negative. It's fine with me if I drive you away. That's as good as if I kept you there. If it was strong enough to run you away, then it's going to do something to you. It's going to make you think about something. It's going to make you feel something that you weren't feeling or thinking about before. And that's the whole idea."

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