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Composer and woodwind player Henry Threadgill has been combining chamber music with improvisation for almost half a century. From his work with the acclaimed trio Air to his current group Zooid, Threadgill has built a reputation for creating a different kind of jazz.

Reporter Tom Vitale has this profile.

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

Mr. HENRY THREADGILL (Composer and Woodwind Player): Hercule Poirot, she didn't even introduce him until about two or three chapters from the end. 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, that kind of layout in terms of composition.

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

Mr. LIBERTY ELLMAN (Guitarist): One person might solo on a certain part of the piece. And then we'll go to another part of the piece and 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.

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VITALE: The quintet features drums, guitar, acoustic bass, tuba alternating with trombone and Threadgill switching between flute and alto sax.

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VITALE: The name of the band is Zooid, a term for independent organisms that work together in a colony, like coral. Threadgill says as in the biological Zooid, the music is about multiple independent voices coming together to create a whole.

Mr. THREADGILL: It's contrapuntal music. Everyone is playing these different melodies and phrases. Harmony happens, but the harmony is incidental to the counterpoint chatter.

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

Mr. NATE CHINEN (Jazz Writer, The New York Times): You know, in this band, Zooid, there's a lot of sort of fractured funk. It's as if you took a hypnotic James Brown bass line and drum part, and then you kind of chopped it up and then reassembled it to look like some kind of a strange new creation.

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Mr. ELLMAN: 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.

VITALE: Guitarist Liberty Ellman.

Mr. ELLMAN: There's no other group I've ever played with that has this sort of combination of ecstatic fun and intellectual rigor. And I've learned a lot about composition.

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VITALE: Critic Nate Chinen says Threadgill has come up with a new way of creating jazz. He's defined his own language, his own system, for making experimental music within a strict set of rules.

Mr. CHINEN: He isn't just interested in writing forms that will be played in a conventional way. He actually wants to change the way that the music take shape, the way that musicians respond to one another.

VITALE: Threadgill says art is supposed to be challenging. He doesn't care if his audience likes the music or not, as long as it moves them.

Mr. THREADGILL: My only hope is that they'll have a reaction. And reaction doesn't have to be positive. It could be negative. It's fine with me if I drive you away. That's as good as 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.

VITALE: Henry Threadgill says the biggest obstacles people face in appreciating new art are the limits of their own expectations.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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