Henry Threadgill Zooid / Henry Threadgill

In for a Penny, In for a Pound

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Over his long career, Henry Threadgill has created a body of work that always seems to follow a jazz aesthetic that embodies surprise, which he strategizes. He often composes for different ensembles concurrently. While his own mark is almost always instantly recognizable, he always writes for a particular group. Zooid, one of his longest-lived bands -- first coming into existence in 2001 with Up Popped the Two Lips -- has consistently proved to be his most satisfying. In for a Penny, In for a Pound, a double-length date, features the bandleader on alto saxophone and flutes, as well as original members in guitarist Liberty Ellman, Jose Davila on tuba and trombone, drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, and newcomer Christopher Hoffman on violoncello. Bassist Stomu Takeishi, a member of Zooid since 2009, is absent. This long set is structured as a single work. Each disc offers a relatively brief intro piece where the ensemble creates articulations of themes and responses: the title track on disc one, and "Off the Prompt Box" on disc two. They are followed by two long works each, denoted by single-word titles with subtitles that reflect the concentration for each piece: "Dosepic: For Cello," "Unoepic: For Guitar," etc. While each highlighted instrument gets its solo section, they are relatively short (and almost every instrument solos in others). In reality, what takes place within Threadgill's canny, knotty, vanguard yet somehow accessible compositions, is that the instrument focused upon becomes the catalyst for a dialogue -- both arranged and improvisational -- between the individual instruments and the entire ensemble. This is a 21st century take on chamber jazz. The fat bottom end provided by Davila's tuba and trombone offers a bumping, striding swagger underscored by sometimes-martial, sometimes-swinging, sometimes-free kit work from Kavee. The whole piece, despite its 70-minute length, is quite symmetrical. Individual conversations are relatively easy to follow -- remarkable in itself given how busy the music is -- and Threadgill's abundant sense of warmth and humor is present throughout. No individual solos are overly long, and the bandleader uses his own instruments to supplement and contrast colors, timbres, tones, and physical dynamics. His bluesy alto saxophone often serves to bring particularly dynamic, exploratory flights back to earth. In for a Penny, In for a Pound doesn't suffer from academic posturing, excessive ambition, or theoretical navel gazing. In fact, given its length, it is remarkably inviting without needing to compromise its sense of adventure or sense of purpose. Each of Threadgill's bands has a watermark recording, but this one may be the umbrella all the rest fall under.

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