Earlier in his career, Henry Threadgill shifted his bands around quite a bit. His working relationships with Air, the Henry Threadgill Sextett, Very Very Circus, and Make a Move were all very fruitful on the recording front, but none of them lasted longer than nine years. By the time he started recording with the band Zooid in 2001, it was probably anyone’s guess as to how long until the acclaimed saxophonist/flutist/bandleader/composer felt he had reached the end of this particular road. Twenty years on, Zooid are still chugging. In the preceding decade, they took a break from recording, allowing Threadgill to compose three albums worth of new music for two new bands, Ensemble Double Up and 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg.
But now Zooid are back in the studio, picking up from where they left off with the Pulitzer-winning double album In for a Penny, In for a Pound. Built around a series of concerti, Threadgill composed the music of In for a Penny, In for a Pound to show off the individual talents of his band. The whole concept went beyond just jazz soloing (the word “jazz” suddenly becomes feeble when describing Threadgill), it let the soloist drive the piece while being fully integrated in the band. Poof does the same thing on a smaller scale. Trimmed down to 38 minutes, the five pieces on Poof are as light, airy, and mysterious as the album’s title. I will try to describe it, but you all know what happens when you try to grab a cloud.
Zooid still sound like no other band in jazz. The themes are elongated, repetition is at an all-time low, and the band frequently sound like they’re playing their sheet music upside down and backward. Drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee doesn’t try too hard to make the music swing, instead opting for the occasional half shuffle coupled with ever-shifting downbeats. Guitarist Liberty Ellman still approaches his instrument with the mindset of a horn player while cellist Christopher Hoffman saws away like a lumberjack. Jose Davila is put in charge of the low end with tuba and trombone, though his work on both is more of a melodic nature than a supportive one. Alternating between alto saxophone, flute, and bass flute, Threadgill continues to dish out confounding compositions that manage to stretch one’s ear without somehow snapping it. Zooid clicks so well together even though all these strange traits are one reason why their previous album won the Pulitzer Prize.
Poof curiously begins with the showcase for cello and alto saxophone named “Come and Go”. Hoffman does not stretch, yawn, and eventually feel his way around the mix. He dives in headfirst and takes command of the piece before handing it over to Threadgill’s sax. The title track is appropriately light and wispy as Ellman’s pointillistic solo has no choice but to calm down as his boss takes over approximately one minute in.
“Beneath the Bottom”, a track released ahead of Poof, is Davila’s time to shine on the trombone. Using rubato and various mutes, Davila paints the sound canvas with intermittent splashes while the rest of Zooid gives a straight-up masterclass in minimalist accompaniment. “Happenstance” may be composed for flute and drums, but Elliot Humberto Kavee has more than just pounding the skins in mind. After Threadgill’s flute plays a confusing game of musical leapfrog with Ellman, the band comes to an abrupt halt as Kavee lightly taps his cymbals. By the time he turns to the rest of the kit, it’s as though he’s afraid to wake the baby. After a bit of revving, he settles into a more orthodox drum solo, though it occupies a concise span of time in the track overall. “Now and Then” is a chance for Davila to switch to tuba as he and Ellman take turns in building the action through a remarkably controlled simmer.
About the only thing that’s missing from Poof is Threadgill’s penchant for odd song titles. At just a hair over 38 minutes, it feels unreasonably short, as did 2009’s This Brings Us To, Vol. 1. Apart from that, Henry Threadgill’s followers and fans of modern jazz will have a new milestone to celebrate with Poof. In the meantime, the rest of you work on not taking him for granted.