The 74-year-old continues mapping out new explorations as evidenced on his two latest Pi Recordings discs – Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus and Dirt. . . And More Dirt.

Alto saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill does not only compose fantastical music, he also creates sonic worlds, marked by intriguing instrumentation, a probing balance between improvisation and composition and a flair for whimsical titles.

Orchestras for pianos

Threadgill has delivered an epic follow up to 2016’s “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs”, which introduces one of his latest combos, the Ensemble Double Up, a septet that showcased two pianists – Jason Moran and David Virelles. This album marked the rare appearance of piano in Threadgill’s music, which has long incorporated provocative combinations of tuba, electric guitar, cello, woodwinds and bass. Before this, he hadn’t released an album that featured a piano since 1993’s “Song Out of My Trees”, which showcased pianist Myra Melford alongside Amina Claudine Myers on organ and harpsichord and Tony Cedras on accordion, set amid a thicket of brass, electric guitar, cello, drums and vocals.

Threadgill explains that the main reason his discography contains so little music involving the instrument is because when he arrived in New York from Chicago in the 1970s, the pianos at many jazz clubs were substandard. “The pianos were awful,” he recalls. “The pianos sounded like junkyard instruments. Half of the keys didn’t play; the pianos were often out of tune. The club owners had no respect for the piano players. And I wasn’t going to have my pianist play anything like that.”

A universe in motion

By the time, New York’s jazz scene began bringing in better pianos, Threadgill had move on to crafting engrossing music without them. On “Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus”, Virelles returns on piano. Here he’s playing alongside two others – David Bryant and Luis Perdomo. The rest of the ensemble’s instrumentation is filled out by cello, drums, tuba, alto saxophone and flute. Like much of Threadgill’s music, the ensemble places a high premium on textural invention and ingenious displays of contrapuntal dialogue. Suite-like in its execution, the album’s long-form compositions play out like an elaborate board game as the musicians volley back and forth with succinct melodic motifs and anti phonic explorations. Adding more to the intrigue is that fact that Threadgill doesn’t even play on it.

He does play on “Dirt. . . And More Dirt”, which introduces yet another bewitching ensemble, 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg, a cryptically titled combo that’s perhaps more explanatory than one would think. The group contains 15 musicians, engaging in one of Threadgill’s new compositional systems involving improvisations based upon preconceived series of intervals. This group too features piano – Bryant and Virelles – but inside a grander, multilayered matrix of brass, electric guitar, cello, bass and drums. Even though, the music bears Threadgill’s penchant for hyper-interactive dialogue, suspenseful displays of tension and release, and polyphonic wizardry, it embodies a realm uniquely its own, adding yet another musical world to Threadgill’s expanding music galaxy.

“They all have their own language,” Threadgill says of his fascinating ensembles, which dates to Air trio with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall in the mid-1970s. “I never write anything just for the novelty of it. I only write music that enables me to move to different places. That’s why each one of these two new ensembles are different. As for as musicians that I recruit, I generally look for people who are very open in terms of their concepts. I usually don’t use musicians who just stay in one world.”


Henry Threadgill on Pi Recordings:

  • Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus  (2018)
  • Dirt. . . And More Dirt (2018)
  • Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (2017)
  • In for a Penny, In for a Pound (2015)
  • Tomorrow Sunny, The Revelry, spp (2012)
  • This Brings Us To, vol. 2, (2010)
  • This Brings Us To, vol.1 (2009)
  • Up Popped The Two Lips (2001)
  • Everybodys Mouth’s a book (2001)

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