One of the true visionaries of jazz, composer-saxophonist-flutist Henry Threadgill occupies a zone of his own. He’s not exactly famous — if asked to name an important living jazz artist, most people would more likely cite Wynton Marsalis. Yet Threadgill isn’t quite obscure, having recorded some of the most challengingly imaginative jazz albums of the last 40 years — some of it, improbably, for major labels.
That music, originally released from the 1970s through the ‘90s and some of which had fallen out of print, has been reissued as “The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air” on the Mosaic label ($136, mosaicrecords.com). The eight-CD boxed set covers 11 albums and features Threadgill’s sax-bass-drums trio, Air; his chamber-style ensemble, X-75; his Sextett group (which was actually a septet); and his combos Very Very Circus and Make a Move.
In a recent phone interview from his home in New York, Threadgill said he was not involved in selecting the material for the boxed set, but thought Mosaic did a good job.
“It covers a lot,” said the musician, 66, who continues to perform and compose. “I just got it myself.” The set also effectively illustrates Threadgill’s inclination to move on artistically: “I never play the same music from one group to another.”
With his penchant for unusual instrumentation, quirky song titles (such as “Make Hot and Give” and “The Flew”) and sheer musical adventurousness, Threadgill has consistently been a progressive force in jazz. Particularly during the 1980s, when “young lions” such as Marsalis presented the music’s past as its endpoint.
“I can’t think of a composer in the 1980s who achieved more than Henry Threadgill did with his Sextett,” said John Litweiler, author of the classic book, “The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958.”
“What beautiful melodies he came up with,” Litweiler said.
A Chicago native, Threadgill was an early member of the city’s legendary AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), which championed innovative and avant-garde jazz in the 1960s and ‘70s. Others in the organization included saxophonist-composer Anthony Braxton, drummer Jack DeJohnette (best known for his work in pianist Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio) and St. Louis-reared trumpeter Lester Bowie. The AACM, which still exists, was affiliated with the subsequently discontinued Black Artists’ Group (BAG) in St. Louis.
Threadgill’s allegiance to the avant-garde is obvious in the music of Air, in which he interacted with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall. The boxed set starts off with three Air albums for Arista Novus — “Open Air Suit,” “Montreux Suisse Air” and “Air Lore” — recorded in 1978 and ‘79. Performing on reed instruments including alto saxophone and flute, Threadgill comes up with something radically different than the usual sax-trio explorations, deftly blending composition and free improvisation. But it’s “Air Lore,” on which the trio performs ragtime tunes by Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin as well as a Threadgill original, that earns desert-island status. It’s hard to imagine a sprightlier rendering of Joplin’s “Weeping Willow Rag.”
His approach to Joplin’s music, Threadgill said, was to “open it up and let it breathe, and look at it in terms of things that are implied that you can do. But you can’t get away from the nature of something — you have to know when you’re breaching that.”
Sticking with Arista Novus, Threadgill made his recording debut under his own name in 1979 with “X-75, Vol. 1” and the previously unreleased “X-75, Vol. 2.” Working with a nonet (including vocalist Amina Claudine Myers), Threadgill puts a postmodern spin on swing, creating music that’s gloriously unconstrained. The standout track is the lovely “Luap Nosebor,” for three flutes and a piccolo.
Threadgill has a distinctive approach to jazz composition, said guitarist Liberty Ellman, who plays in Zooid, Threadgill’s current band. Its latest release is “This Brings Us To, Volume 2.”
“He’s very influenced by modern classical composers,” Ellman said. “There’s a whole lot of really interesting information that we get to work with, and it feels like there’s an infinite amount of options for us to create sound.
“But because of his history in the avant-garde jazz world, there’s also a lot of freedom to express yourself individually. And he really knows how to get the most out of all of his musicians.”
When Novus moved from Arista to RCA, so did Threadgill, recording three albums with his Sextett from 1986 to 1988: “You Know the Number,” “Easily Slip into Another World” and “Rag, Bush and All.” Like “Air Lore,” the Sextett albums have been much sought-after by hardcore jazz fans. Of the three, the best is arguably “You Know the Number,” if only because “Theme From Thomas Cole” is equal to the best work of Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.
Rounding off the boxed set are the Columbia albums “Carry the Day,” “Makin’ a Move” and “Where’s Your Cup?,” recorded from 1994 to 1996. One of Threadgill’s most accessible recordings, “Carry the Day” features the septet Very Very Circus. Its intriguing instrumentation, including two tubas and two electric guitars, lends the compositions a rhythmic urgency. “Come Carry the Day,” the Latin-tinged opening track, is at once majestic and mesmerizing.
Its title notwithstanding, “Makin’ a Move” features Very Very Circus with guest artists; the quintet Make a Move makes its debut on “Where’s the Cup?” Both discs are well worth hearing, but “Where’s the Cup” demonstrates that a small band — in this case, Threadgill, guitarist Brandon Ross, accordionist Tony Cedras, bassist Stomu Takeshi and drummer J.T. Lewis — can make a big impression. The quintet is at its most expressive on the epic “And This.”
“The Complete Arista & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air” isn’t the definitive Threadgill collection — he has recorded many albums for small labels, and continues to release new work. But it’s an excellent introduction to an essential artist.