Henry Threadgill. Photo by Seth Rosner, via Spoleto Festival USA.

When Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Henry Threadgill writes for his Zooid ensemble, his curious nature sits at the center of his fusion of chamber music and jazz. 

“Henry is one of those people who’s very confident with his ideas,” Zooid guitarist Liberty Ellman said. “It doesn’t occur to him whether something is accessible or not. He doesn’t consider that at all. But it’s in his nature, because he likes to groove.”

Threadgill’s Zooid quintet will perform at the College of Charleston Sottile Theater on June 6 during Spoleto Festival USA. The ensemble features Threadgill’s flute and saxophone playing alongside acoustic guitar, cello, tuba and drums. Its most recent album, 2021’s “Poof,” unspools its five tracks over nearly 40 minutes.

Bill Banfield, an emeritus professor of Black music studies at the Berklee College of Music, was one of the judges who awarded Threadgill the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music for a previous Zooid album, “In for a Penny, In for a Pound.”

He said Threadgill’s idiosyncratic fusion of chamber music and jazz was less atypical than some might assume. 

“Those two musics, in American modern music, are almost the same,” Banfield said.

Threadgill was born in Chicago in 1944, a time that saw the birth of bebop as well as Stravinsky’s neoclassical period. A vibrant local music scene, with its marching bands, blues musicians and gospel singers, surrounded Threadgill.

In his recent memoir, “Easily Slip Into Another World,” written with Brent Hayes Edwards, Threadgill says his earliest sonic experiences remain with him to this day.

“All my references go back to sound,” he writes. “I go back in my memory and I don’t see: I hear.” 

Even before Threadgill was in grade school, he was taking in the sounds of streetcar bells, diverse global music radio programs and stage shows. It’s this same spirit that inspires his composing now.

“He has absorbed and been curious enough to study a lot of contemporary classical music and actually been willing to take it on and bring his own language to it,” said Ellman, who has performed with Threadgill for more than 20 years. “It’s not like he’s trying something on when he decides to do something with string quartets or chamber ensembles.”

In his explorative process, Threadgill doesn’t pull any punches, and he doesn’t mind a few hiccups along the way.

“He has no fear of failure,” Ellman said.

Threadgill’s trailblazing continues from the writing process into the performance. He frequently changes the order in which a piece’s sections are performed live, sometimes right before taking the stage.

“There have been times when it was a little messy for a second, and there he is, saying, ‘Yep, okay, this is working,’” Ellman said.

Threadgill’s composing techniques are complex: To go from one chord to the next, he analyzes the relationships between the notes in the first chord and generates a new one based on his system.

His philosophy is best summed up in his own words, from the closing pages of his memoir. Threadgill discusses the similarities between Zooid’s music and James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and, in doing so, identifies the value of boundary-breaking art.

“There’s a thrilling defiance of the conventional rules, a bold transgression of the way things supposedly have to be done,” Threadgill writes. “And yet you encounter order and sense anyway, maybe even new or redoubled layers of resonance and meaning, because it isn’t done the same old way.”

IF YOU WANT TO GO: Henry Threadgill’s Zooid performs June 6 at 6 p.m.at the College of Charleston’s Sottile Theatre. Tickets are $38 to $78.

Desi Gillespie is an arts journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.

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