Music history will probably very kind to Henry Threadgill, its hard to think of many other jazz artists who have maintained such a high quality of output in a career that extends all the way back to the 70s. Many fads and trends have come and gone and Threadgill seems untouched by any of them, instead, his music always looks forward, while being remarkably imbedded with all the great music that came before him. Henry’s music may capture the crest of the current avant-garde, yet you will hear elements that may recall the earliest days of New Orleans bands and on to anything else that happened between now and then. In recent years, Threadgill has been composing for his Zooid quintet, an ensemble that reflects the current jazz scene’s interest in composition and 3rd stream type projects, but again, Henry’s approach on his recent “In for a Penny, In for a Pound”, sounds like no one else.
Some music is more difficult to describe than others, and “In for a Penny, In for a Pound” is easily one of the more difficult. Much of this music is composed, but a lot of it is improvised as well. It appears that Threadgill offers his musicians choices (such as note selection) and they take it from there. The resultant music is somewhat similar to 60s indeterminate chamber pieces by composers like Pierre Boulez and Elliot Carter, in which they tried to mimic the random changes of the mobile in visual art. Much like those earlier pieces, “In for a Penny” maintains a sort of static movement that is devoid of dramatic highs or lows. This is contrapuntal music, with each instrument chattering away, playing their lines in equal volume, except for frequent sections where one instrument rises above the mix for a solo of sorts. The fact that Threadgill is using a mix of brass, woodwind, bowed and plucked strings and percussion gives the instrumental texture that dry pointillist sound reminiscent of that golden age of avant-garde chamber music. Every single note and melodic line from every instrument comes through clearly.
Although there is a strong parallel to indeterminate concert hall music on “In for a Penny”, this is still a jazz record and it often hit’s a weird broken groove that sort of swings in a very modern and abstract way. With all the little interlocking phrases coming and going from the instruments, sometimes this music recalls Ornette Coleman, particularly his later albums such as “Tone Dialing”. Much like Coleman’s music, “In for a Penny” is not so much atonal, as it deals more with tonality that is in constant flux. When it comes to shifting from one tonal area to the next, it appears Threadgill has developed some formidable compositional techniques.
“In for a Penny, In for a Pound” is one of the more interesting records, in any genre, to come out in a while. You can spin this a hundred times and you will still get a fresh listening experience every time. Although this is definitely a jazz record, it would be interesting to give this piece a chance to appear on a program of contemporary concert hall music, it would probably hold up very well against the others.