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Henry Threadgill Zooid: In for a Penny, In for a Pound

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Saxophonist/flutist Henry Threadgill has deployed Zooid as his ensemble vehicle for 14 years now, longer than his marvelous, indelible tenures with Air and Very Very Circus. This group is the most schematic and controlled of the three, yet it continues to blossom in new and exciting ways thanks to Threadgill’s unremitting maturity as a composer and conceptualist.

In for a Penny, In for a Pound is an 80-minute work comprising six sections. Threadgill calls it an “epic” and writes that he originally perceived of it as a “stream of phases” to play in an intimate, refined setting. There are similar themes and harmonic intervals in each section, often involving different combinations of instruments, giving the entire piece a twirling, prismatic quality. The CD package spreads the music over two discs, each beginning with a short intro that leads to two longer sections (the shortest of these four is 16 minutes). Threadgill claims that each of these four sections focuses on one instrument, and cites them in titles like “Dosepic (for cello),” but after a half-dozen concentrated listens, I can’t identify that focus aside from brief solos from the identified instrument near the middle of each section. All six sections remain fascinating, ever-shifting exercises in ensemble interplay.

In for a Penny sounds more expansive, and “wetter,” than previous Zooid outings. Bassist Stomu Takeishi is no longer with the group, but Jose Davila pulls yeoman duty on both trombone and tuba, delivering the low-end foundation and contrast (both dramatic and whimsical) that has always been integral to Threadgill’s work. Threadgill also loves to scramble the tones of horns and strings, and with longtime guitarist Liberty Ellman (who also produced the record) and relative newcomer Christopher Hoffman on violoncello, there are plenty of plucked, bowed, bent and strummed notes playing chameleon alongside Davila or Threadgill on alto sax, flute and bass flute. Drummer and percussionist Elliot Humberto Kavee rounds out a quintet that manages to be individually distinctive or remarkably interchangeable as the situation warrants. And so it is with the album as a whole: It would be difficult to identify any of the individual sections with a one-minute sample. The entire epic rarely lingers, yet executes a similarly nimble dance within each section. For listeners and musicians alike, if you’re in for a penny…

Originally Published