Flow is Everything: Composer Henry Threadgill Dishes the 'Dirt' and More on The Checkout

May 18, 2018

Henry Threadgill, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, bandleader, saxophonist and flutist, has not exactly settled into the calm of late-career eminence. At 74, he’s nearly as productive as he has ever been — and every ounce the visionary, judging by two albums out today on Pi Recordings.


Threadgill recently joined Simon Rentner for a frank and scintillating conversation on The Checkout, addressing some of this music as well as a few broader topics of conversation — like the “enfolding and outfolding” strategies of the classical composer Edgard Varèse, which he took as a springboard, and the importance of flow in any musical invention, no matter how spiky or abstruse.

“Like a film, like a play, even a so-called static work of art, it has to move,” Threadgill says. “What advances the action? Everything has to advance to the next action. Every act has something in it that advances to the next moment.”

Each of his new albums deftly illustrates this principle, with the bounding rhythm and pinballing intervals that Threadgill has made his trademark. As on previous recordings by Zooid, his longtime band, these albums put a premium on shifting texture and intricate counterpoint, in ways that feel spontaneous and brash.

Dirt… And More Dirt features an ensemble that Threadgill calls 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg — “agg” as in “aggregate,” with an array of resourceful improvisers who have grappled elsewhere with his music. Among them are the members of Zooid, including guitarist Liberty Ellman, who also served as producer; two pianists, David Bryant and David Virelles; two trumpeters, Stephanie Richards and Jonathan Finlayson; and two alto saxophonists, Curtis Robert Macdonald and Roman Filiú.

The album divides into two suites, the first bearing the title “Dirt” and the second called “And More Dirt.” Inspiration came partly from The New York Earth Room, an installation by Walter de Maria that consists of 250 cubic feet of soil. (As the scholar Brent Hayes Edwards has recently explored, Threadgill brings a wily and pointed imagination to the titling of his works.)

The album’s opening track, “Dirt - Part I,” opens on the low end, with ruminative solos by cellist Christopher Hoffman and bassist Thomas Morgan. Then after a fluent statement by Ellman, there’s a piano-solo handful from Bryant (in the left channel) to Virelles (in the right). The whole tumbling contraption clicks into gear during the last 30 seconds of the track.

Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus is Threadgill’s other new release, for an expanded version of the large band he calls the Ensemble Double Up. This lineup is notable mainly for the inclusion of three pianists: Bryant, Virelles and Luis Perdomo. It also features Filiú, Macdonald and Hoffman, along with Jose Davila on tuba and Craig Weinrib on drums and percussion.

Threadgill doesn’t play much alto on Dirt… And More Dirt, as if intent on emphasizing his role as composer and conductor. He takes this gesture even further with Ensemble Double Up: on Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus (as on the 2016 Ensemble Double Up album Old Locks and Irregular Verbs), he doesn’t even bring a horn.

But it’s not as if his instrumental signature is missing here: because the intervallic signature of the writing is so strong, you hear echoes of Threadgill’s saxophone voice in the solos by Macdonald and Filiú. 

“Clear and Distinct,” which closes the suite, doesn’t include any saxophone solos — the track begins with a statement by Davila, exploring a range of extended techniques, and goes on to feature a graceful riot of pianism — but you can still hear Threadgill loud and clear. When Macdonald and Filiú land on a coordinated phrase, for instance, at 7:40, and steer the piece toward a turbulent yet articulate close.

For more information about Henry Threadgill, visit his artist page at Pi Recordings.

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