Air's 1978 debut for Novus, Open Air Suit, shows Threadgill and the band building pieces up from dot-dash exclamations into longer skirling lines that come together in dramatic cadences. Pieces develop with the tension of narrative expectancy, deferred resolutions, broad fluctuations of consonance and dissonance and varied textures. On the closing 15-minute flute piece, Hopkins and McCall vary every form of attack: bow against brushes, pizzicato and sticks, mallets and bow again, and, at one point, Hopkins running alongside Threadgill's flute in a parallel melody of percussive string slapping with the bow. The coda is a mixture of serene and ominous: long flute tones against bowed bass and tense mallets. There's also plenty of explosive free playing by Air, and even (from the 1978 live set Montreux Suisse Air) an extended beautiful blues that begins slowly (Threadgill on tenor) and builds to riffing intensity.
The one "hit" of Air's career was the 1979 session Air Lore, a set of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton tunes developed from a theater piece the band had worked on. Air Lore's artistic success was twofold: in one stroke, they proved their bona fides to any doubters and also claimed this "old" music as part of the ongoing tradition of the avant-garde. They did that by playing it straight. You won't hear a more loving and revelatory performance of Morton's "Buddy Bolden's Blues" than Air's — they take their sweet time, Threadgill's tenor patiently exploring every phrase.
Through the next decade and a half, Threadgill experimented with one small-band concept after another, some of them overlapping. Running concurrently with Air was X75 — four reeds/flutes, four basses, a vocalist, no drummer. His Sextett (the spelling represented his attempt to resolve his audience's confusion about the seven-piece line-up) deployed brass, cello, bass, and two drummers. In the early '90s, he developed two ensembles, Very Very Circus (not represented in the Mosaic set) and Make a Move, that were anchored not by bass but by two tubas, with two electric guitars, French horn and/or trombone, and drums.
With all of these outfits, he upended jazz convention. The tubas were sometimes seen as a New Orleans throwback, but as Threadgill was quick to point out, he never used the second-line parade rhythm. Yet there were plenty of marches, and the kind of ensemble-crescendo fanfares that did indeed conjure circus music and John Philip Sousa. There were also unalloyed Latin rhythms, cross-references to Indian music with the use of harmonium, Argentine tango with accordion, and Indian scales for bowed cello and bass.
But really, as always with Threadgill, none of these ensembles was exactly like anything else. He'd break them down into subgroups — a trio for alto, bowed cello, and plucked bass, say, or an interlude for the two tubas — and then bring them together for full-band ecstatic fanfares. There were solos: Threadgill's various horns, Deidre Murray's cello, Brandon Ross's soaring rock guitar, a burly Bill Lowe on bass trombone, Frank Lacy on trombone or French horn. But rather than arrange a sequence of solos over chord changes, Threadgill would set them amid shifting countermelodies of low brass. Meanwhile, he would build those short interlocking rhythmic phrases into edifices that were majestic and even a bit terrifying. It was busy but coherent, and you could hold it all in your ear even as you were noticing new things.