Track of the Day: 'In for a Penny, in for a Pound'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The Pulitzer for Music doesn’t usually get the same attention that the prizes for journalism and books—or this year, for drama—do. For one thing, the award tends toward contemporary classical music, with a smaller audience. Not always, though—sometimes they favor the improvisatory avant-garde, like this year’s winner, just announced: Henry Threadgill’s In for a Penny, in for a Pound.

Who’s that, you ask? He’s a jazz-ish alto saxophonist, flautist, and composer, who’s long been associated with Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a hotbed of creative music. And what does In for Penny sound like? That’s a tougher question. The record features his band, Zooid, which consists of guitar, tuba, trombone, cello, and drums. The music, which is partly composed and partly improvisational isn’t easygoing—you won’t find recognizable melodies or refrains or chord progressions or even solos. But it’s not as user-unfriendly as much avant-garde jazz can be. Give it some patience and the music will bewitch. As The New York Times’ Nate Chinen wrote when the record came out:

This music is tricky, by design, about the distinctions between foreground and background. At any moment, the members of Zooid are likely to be knitted together in a group improvisation; the forward pull of the music has a lot to do with the friction of their split-second reactions. And every coordinated gesture, like the spiky phrase for flute and trombone in the final seconds of “Ceroepic (for drums and percussion),” comes with a small jolt, a reminder of how many intricate details have been whirring past.

This is the opener of the two-disc set; the rest is well worth your time. But don’t take my word for it: Take the word of the Pulitzer jury, which called it “the very expression of modern American life.”

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