Paramount among independent modern jazz record labels, Black Saint was founded in Italy back in 1975 and grew to encompass more than 190 albums, while its comparatively mainstream sister enterprise, Soul Note, emerged in 1979 and eventually racked up a phenomenal index of more than 350 releases. After purchasing both gold mines, CAM Jazz began reissuing the cream of these catalogs in affordable box sets, setting the stage for a full-scale reassessment of modern creative music. The Henry Threadgill edition contains no less than seven remastered albums, packaged like little LPs in perfectly reproduced jackets, each with the original print scaled down in miniature but still legible with the aid of a magnifying lens. Threadgill, a heroically unconventional composer, philosopher, and multi-instrumentalist, came up in Chicago's thriving creative artistic environment during the '60s. An early adherent of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, his first recordings were made in the mid-'70s when he teamed with bassist Fred Hopkins and drummer Steve McCall to form a trio called Air. This group's earliest Black Saint album, Live Air, opens with two tracks recorded on the first of July 1976 at Sam & Bea Rivers' wide-open Studio Rivbea in the SoHo district of Lower Manhattan. Both pieces are presented as tributes to kindred spirits. Charles Clark was a founding member of the AACM who worked closely with Muhal Richard Abrams, recorded with Joseph Jarman in 1968, and passed away at the age of 24 in 1969. The eulogy for Clark is followed by a portrait of the premier AACM trumpeter known today as Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith. The second half of this set's first disc was recorded live at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor a few days before Halloween in 1977. It wasn't until the end of December 1980 that the trio recorded again for Black Saint. Air Mail, the eighth of eleven Air albums, was taped at the Right Track Studio in New York, and is composed of three extended works with cryptically abbreviated titles. The next two discs in this variegated anthology jump ahead to a period during which McCall moved on and was replaced by Detroit's Pheeroan akLaff. Now billed as New Air, the trio was recorded live at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in July 1983, and inside the Barigozzi Studio in Milano Italy in June 1986. This final Air recording, titled Air Show No.1, occupies all of Disc 4 and features vocalist Cassandra Wilson, who had cut her own first album, Point of View, less than six months earlier.
After cutting several beautiful and mind-blowing LPs with his sextet for the Novus label, Threadgill returned to Black Saint in November 1990 with a septet known as the Very Very Circus and a seven-track offering bearing the title Spirit of Nuff…Nuff. An even more ambitious and unusually diverse album called Song Out of My Trees appeared in 1993, midway through a nearly five-year stretch which could in retrospect be termed Threadgill's Very Very Circus period. The extraordinarily imaginative work presented on Song Out of My Trees is potent, lasting proof that unwavering devotion to one's spiritual and artistic vision is the most reliable and trustworthy of disciplines. The seventh and final disc in this box set may serve as a reminder that while Threadgill has expressed himself with a healthy range of instruments including alto saxophone and an assemblage made out of hub caps, he has always maintained a close working relationship with the flute. As a student at Chicago's American Conservatory of Music, in fact, he had majored in flute studies along with composition and piano. Flutistry, an unfairly overlooked album of six excursions for a quartet of flutists, appears as a marvelous intersection between the careers of Threadgill and virtuoso flautist James Newton, who recorded his album If Love for the Jazzline label a couple of months before Flutistry came together in June 1990. The other two members of the group, here billed as the Flute Force Four, were Venezuelan virtuoso Pedro Eustache and San Francisco's own Melecio Magdaluyo. While texturally much of this seventh disc is reminiscent of the best of Newton's recorded works, Threadgill's sense of humor and wonderment is never far from the surface. "Hymn to Wright Reverend," for example, is a paean to Albert Ayler devotee Reverend Frank Wright, whereas "Luap Nosebor" turns out to be Paul Robeson spelled backwards. It's about time these marvels came back up out of the woodwork for all to experience anew. Now let's see about reissuing the rest of Threadgill's recorded works. It would be especially rewarding if they all resurfaced in carefully remastered condition, housed in beautifully packaged editions like this one. He deserves nothing less.