by Dave Kaufman (November '97)
Henry Threadgill is one of the great musical masterminds of the past quarter century- a composer, arranger, and innovator who transcends genres in contemporary music. Threadgill, a multi instrumentalist whose principle axes include alto sax and flute, emerged from Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This outfit is best known for producing The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton, both similarly minded musicians who stretch the rather elastic boundaries of avant-garde jazz. Threadgill was founder of the seminal trio Air, which also included bassist Fred Hopkins and the late great Steve McCall on drums. They are best known for Air Lore, a reverent, but decidedly unique interpretation of the compositions of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin. Air lasted from the early '70s until the mid-80s, recording on the order of 8 to 10 albums.
In the mid-80's, Threadgill formed his Sextett (actually a 7 piece group) which included cornettist Olu Dara, trombonists Frank Lacy and Craig Harris, cellist Diedre Murray and drummers Reggie Nicholson and Pheeroan Aklaff among others. They played music steeped in a wide range of Afro-American genres from New Orleans Jazz to Rhythm & Blues to Gospel to Mingus with strands of calypso music thrown in for good measure. This was a free-swinging group that recorded 6 stellar albums, including 3 of the very best recordings of 1980s, most notably Just the Facts and Pass the Bucket, You Know the Number (perhaps the best and most accessible album Threadgill has ever recorded) and Easily Slip into a New World.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Threadgill formed Very Very Circus (VVC), a septet that has included two tuba players (Edwin Rodrigues and Marcus Rojas), two guitars (including the great Brandon Ross, who in significant respects, is the architect of Cassandra Wilson's recent commercial and artistic success), Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Ted Daniels on trumpet, Gene Lake and Pheeroan Aklaff on drums. This group represented a radical jazz departure even by Threadgill's standards. VVC fused the music of avant-garde jazz, funk, salsa, and East European marches into a highly original sound that was far more than the sum of it's influences. They made 5 albums, including the landmark recording Too Much Sugar for a Dime, one of the greatest recordings of the last 25 years (this would easily rank as one of my desert island disks. VVC was the greatest twin tuba/twin guitar septet in jazz history, and probably the only one). At this point in time, Threadgill began to experiment with fully composed music that left very little room for improvisation. Some of these recordings include rather exotic instrumentation creating an unusual blend of timbres, and highly intricate arrangements.