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TERRY GROSS, host:

Our chats critic Kevin Whitehead says that saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill has been a major composer and a conceptualist for over 30 years. He threads together musical strains from America's past and all over the globe in diverse bands like Air, the Threadgill Sextextt, Very Very Circus and Zooid. Henry Threadgill has a couple of recent releases out, including a box retrospective.

Kevin has this review.

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KEVIN WHITEHEAD: The trio playing Scott Joplin's 1903 "Weeping Willow Rag." Air was a flagship of the 1970s avant-garde, but saxophonist Henry Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall first came together to play Joplin's piano music. They preserved his rags' multiple themes, but swung them in a modern way. That blend of the new and recycled is typical Threadgill. With Air, he sometimes played hubkaphone - a rack of vintage hubcaps - and could make it sound like a giant African thumb piano.

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WHITEHEAD: This music is from Mosaic' eight-CD box set, "The Complete Novus and Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill and Air." It spans 1978 to '96, with 10 albums' worth of stuff, plus unreleased tracks by his quixotic band X-75, with its four reeds and four basses.

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WHITEHEAD: In the 1980s, Threadgill led his most fondly remembered group, his seven-piece so-called Sextett, with the two drummers counted as one. It typified midsize '80s bands that combined big-band punch with small-group agility.

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WHITEHEAD: Frank Lacy on trombone.

Henry Threadgill loves a good march, like other jazz progressives who served in the Army. Marches, like ragtime, influenced early jazz as well as his own multi-part compositions. But with the sextet, he reached back still further, to the old-folks-at-hominess of 19th-century parlor songs. Threadgill's "Spotted Dick Is Pudding" sounds like Stephen Foster with a disorienting twist: The main theme keeps coming back in a different key.

(Soundbite of song, "Spotted Dick Is Pudding")

WHITEHEAD: Henry Threadgill's more recent bands draw connections across cultures as well as time. In his '90s outfit Very Very Circus, two pumping tubas hinted at New Orleans parade bands, while two electric guitars intertwined as in African pop. But that group could shuffle like a Chicago blues band, and Threadgill on expressively raw alto sax might channel his inner Jackie McLean.

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WHITEHEAD: In the '90s, Threadgill kept expanding his frame of reference, drawing on Venezuelan hand drumming and South African accordion music influenced by Indian drones. In this pan-global context, J.T. Lewis' reggae drumming in "100 Year Old Game" barely sounds exotic.

(Soundbite of song, "100 Year Old Game")

WHITEHEAD: The quintet, Make A Move, from the final 1996 session in Mosaic's Henry Threadgill box.

If that bonanza weren't enough, he also has a new recording out, "This Brings Us To, Volume 2," with his current quintet Zooid. In the late '90s, Threadgill began spending time in India, and Zooid's rhythmic interplay and slippery lines suggest a link to sitar-and-tabla Indian classical music. But you can also trace the orderly collective improvising back to old New Orleans: The tuba's still there alongside the leader's saxophone and flute. But the no-groove groove is Threadgill's own. I don't know anyone whose bands ooze through time the way his do. Even when you hear where he's coming from, he still comes at you sideways.

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GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed "The Complete Novus and Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill and Air" on the Mosaic label. And this us to "Volume 2" by Threadgill and Zooid on the Pi label.

You can download Podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

I'm Terry Gross.

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GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, investigating how U.S. guns end up in Mexico's drug wars.

We talk with James Grimaldi, one of the reporters who has contributed to the Washington Post series of "The Hidden Life of Guns."

Join us for the next FRESH AIR.

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