On Henry Threadgill’s latest record In For A Penny, In For A Pound, the saxophonist/flautist/composer and his longstanding band, Zooid, merge the ethos and improvisation of jazz with the compositional techniques of aleatoric contemporary-classical music, all through the lens of an ensemble that fits neither paradigm. Zooid — which consists of Threadgill on alto saxophone, flute, and bass flute, Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Christopher Hoffman on cello, and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums and percussion — is a truly unique musical animal. Not only is it a very unexpected instrumentation, but the group is the sole vessel for Threadgill’s compositional techniques for group improvisation. Each member is given a set of three-note intervals on which to start and base their improvisations. This method allows for a focused, four-part improvised counterpoint to be woven by the ensemble in a way that is rarely — if ever — heard elsewhere.
This record is meant to be viewed as a single piece in six movements, which Threadgill refers to as an “epic.” While that is somewhat unfamiliar to many jazz listeners, it is no surprise coming from Threadgill, who is known as one of the greatest and most consistent innovators in jazz composition. The six movements are “In For A Penny, In For A Pound (opening)”, “Cercepic (for drums and percussion)”, Dosepic (for cello)”, “Off The Prompt Box (exordium)”, Tresepic (for trombone and tuba)”, and “Unoepic (for guitar)”.
Interestingly, the album is divided into two discs, each with three movements. The first track of each disc refers to a form of introduction. The first disc begins with a track subtitled “opening”, and the second with a track subtitled “exordium”, which is traditionally the beginning section of a rhetorical oration technique. This seems to imply that the work might be more aptly described as containing two large sections, each containing three mini-movements.
Each of the four non-introductory movements are meant to showcase an individual member of Zooid, although not necessarily in a fashion you would expect. For instance, the nearly 20-minute “Ceroepic (for drums and percussion)” does have a drum solo, but it only lasts for slightly over two minutes, leaving the remaining 90 percent of the movement to a wide range of textures and aesthetics conjured by the ensemble. Among those aesthetics are many interesting timbral combinations, often deployed in the form of trios. Notably, the beginning of “Dosepic (for cello)” consists of the unfamiliar yet logical and compelling combination of drum set, tuba, and cello; something akin to a fresh take on the classic trio of tenor sax, bass, and drums. Similarly, the beginning of “Tresepic” consists primarily of sparse and plinky guitar, arco [bowed] cello, and muted trombone, which creates a sly — almost mischievous — texture. While Zooid’s purpose is to serve as a method for bringing Threadgill’s compositions to life, it is readily apparent that these performances are solely devoted to the dynamic of equality within the group and the music. The ink and the improvisations flow seamlessly into one another, realized and created by an ensemble that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.