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Composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill has a new album and a new book


This is FRESH AIR. Composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill has led a variety of colorful, small and large bands from A to Z - specifically, from Air to Zooid. He was named an NEA jazz master in 2020 four years after receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his composition "In For A Penny, In For A Pound." Threadgill has two new releases, a three-movement suite for a 12-piece ensemble and an autobiography. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has this review.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Henry Threadgill's ensemble from his album "The Other One," timed to the release of his autobiography "Easily Slip Into Another World," written with Brent Hayes Edwards. Threadgill is a good storyteller about growing up in Chicago, brief encounters with John Coltrane, Duke Ellington and Arthur Rubinstein, and how wartime Vietnam honed his listening skills as a survival mechanism. If his stories sometimes seem a little too neat, who doesn't polish up a tale in the retelling?

Henry Threadgill's book "Easily Slip Into Another World" illuminates his thinking as a jazz composer and bandleader for 50 years. He describes how a classic ragtime tune's multiple themes, moods and keys inspired his 1970s trio Air and his '80s sextet and tells why the later band's two drummers blended so well. He cites influences as diverse as early Ahmad Jamal, who'd imply a lot with a small gesture, and free jazzer Cecil Taylor, who devised his own musical systems. And Threadgill affirms his abiding love for the versatile tuba and cello.


WHITEHEAD: Hearing Charlie Parker early made Henry Threadgill see how wide and deep jazz is. Black music, he writes, is too young to be dogmatic. Still, Threadgill notes how African American jazz composers have been encouraged to stay in their lane, meaning aim for nightclubs, not classical concert halls. That did not deter Henry Threadgill.


WHITEHEAD: Threadgill's 12-piece ensemble on "The Other One" mixes Latin, jazz and classical musicians and includes members of his quintet Zooid, a string trio, two bassoonist and three saxophonists who can sound rather like Henry himself, who conducts but doesn't play. That instrumentation allows for a wide range of colors and textures.


WHITEHEAD: Henry Threadgill describes transitional periods in his own career between one band or concept and the next. His new album reflects his band Zooid's complex, chess-like procedures in an expanded context. As Threadgill says, he'll hear a texture in his head, then has to figure out how to make it. In his suite's long middle movement, the strings each play a heartbeat-derived rhythm as the drummer amplifies and distorts the sound of his cymbals.


WHITEHEAD: That's like a glimpse of something to be developed further, as if Henry Threadgill, at 79, has his next work cut out for him, slipping into yet another sonic world. While awaiting the results, you can read about his process in his book "Easily Slip Into Another World." Henry Threadgill is a deep thinker with something to say.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed the new CD by the Henry Threadgill Ensemble titled "The Other One" and a new autobiography titled "Easily Slip Into Another World." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our conversation with Blair Kelley about the Black working class or with Evan Thomas about the tense military debates over dropping the atomic bomb in World War II, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


WHITEHEAD: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "CARAVAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.