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Henry Threadgill's No-Groove Groove

Air was a flagship of the 1970s avant-garde, but saxophonist Henry Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall first came together to play Scott Joplin's piano music. They preserved his rags' multiple themes, but swung them in a modern way. That blend of the new and recycled is typical Threadgill. With Air, he sometimes played hubkaphone — a rack of vintage hubcaps — and could make it sound like a giant African thumb piano.

Mosaic Records' eight-CD box set, The Complete Novus and Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill and Air, spans 1978-96, with 10 albums' worth of stuff, plus unreleased tracks by his quixotic band X-75, with its four reeds and four basses.

In the 1980s, Threadgill led his most fondly remembered group, his seven-piece so-called Sextett (with the two drummers counted as one). It typified midsize '80s bands that combined big-band punch with small-group agility.

Henry Threadgill loves a good march, like other jazz progressives who served in the Army. Marches, like ragtime, influenced early jazz as well as his own multi-part compositions. But with the sextet, he reached back still further, to the old-folks-at-hominess of 19th-century parlor songs. Threadgill's "Spotted Dick Is Pudding" sounds like Stephen Foster with a disorienting twist: The main theme keeps coming back in a different key.

Threadgill's more recent bands draw connections across cultures as well as across time. In his '90s outfit Very Very Circus, two pumping tubas hinted at New Orleans parade bands, while two electric guitars intertwined as in African pop. But that group could shuffle like a Chicago blues band, while Threadgill on expressively raw alto sax might channel his inner Jackie McLean.

In the '90s, Threadgill kept expanding his frame of reference, drawing on Venezuelan hand drumming and South African accordion music influenced by Indian drones. In this pan-global context, J.T. Lewis' reggae drumming in "100 Year Old Game" barely sounds exotic.

If that bonanza weren't enough, Threadgill also has a new recording out, This Brings Us To, Volume 2, with his current quintet Zooid. In the late '90s, Threadgill began spending time in India, and Zooid's rhythmic interplay and slippery lines suggest a link to sitar-and-tabla Indian classical music. But you can also trace the orderly collective improvising back to old New Orleans: The tuba's still there alongside the leader's saxophone and flute. But the no-groove groove is Threadgill's own. I don't know anyone whose bands ooze through time the way his do. Even when you hear where he's coming from, he still comes at you sideways.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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.