Henry Threadgill has been reinventing his language — and by extension the jazz language — for at least 30 years, beginning with the trio Air in the 1970s. As critic Ben Ratliff had it, he’s always split the difference between Webern and funk. In this, his first new release in eight years, he brings those impulses as close together as he ever has.
His Zooid, revived from his previous disc, is here a quintet of guitar, trombone/tuba, bass guitar, drums, and his own flute and alto sax. The set-up allows Threadgill all manner of textural density — from the airy, serial-sounding tempo-less album opener, with its flute and mallets, to thick impastos of fat R&B alto and thrusting bass, tuba, and drums. There’s nothing like the broad melodic and rhythmic gestures of some of Threadgill’s earlier ensembles of similar size and instrumentation. Instead, pieces build from short motivic cells of melody, everyone working off them. There are solos, sure, but most of the time you’re conscious of five independent lines developing in almost pure counterpoint, melody and rhythm conjoined — perpetual-motion engines.
The band, after all, take their name from a cell “that is able to move independently of the larger organism to which it belongs.” And a strange, beautiful organism it is.