Henry Threadgill can breathe easier now. It’s mid-November, and having just finished a tough three-night series at Roulette in lower Manhattan, he’s settling down to coffee at De Robertis, a pastry shop near his East Village home. The staff knows him well; a female proprietor calls him “sweetheart.” Another server, an older man, welcomes him by putting on This Brings Us To, Volume II, Threadgill’s latest Pi release with Zooid, his working band. Threadgill stops mid-sentence as soon the music starts, makes eye contact with the waiter over his shoulder and shares a laugh. Turning back around, he comments: “They’ve become my fans.” For the next 40 minutes, the sound of Threadgill’s knotty, challenging music fills the café.
And why not? Threadgill, born in 1944, is one of the most intriguing composers of our time, a saxophonist and flutist with a history that stretches back to the early days of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1960s Chicago. Along with the current Zooid title, we now have The Complete Novus & Columbia Records of Henry Threadgill & Air, an eight-CD box set from Mosaic, to put Threadgill’s achievements into perspective. Another comprehensive, remastered seven-disc set from Black Saint (now owned by CAM Jazz) fills out yet more of the picture-although Threadgill is miffed, to put it mildly, that he wasn’t consulted on the Black Saint packaging or release.