In recent settings, notably his sextet Zooid, Henry Threadgill has savored the effect of archly contrasting timbres. The group he premiered at MOMA’s Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, another six-piece he calls 3 + 3, was no exception, although its three cellists periodically arrived at a chamber-like consonance. The remaining musicians—Threadgill on woodwinds and Zooid members Jose Davila and Elliot Humberto Kavee on tuba and drums—faced the strings from across the stage, in an arrangement that echoed the project’s arithmetic title. Musically, Threadgill had more complex equations in mind: not a sum of parts but a product of permutations.
The first movement of a nameless five-part suite had the cellos buzzing a coordinated dirge, slightly staggered in their attack. Immediately, the sonic reference was classical modernism of the sort that prizes dissonance and improvisation. Ruben Kodheli took that call seriously in the evening’s first solo, which started as a twitchy plaint and grew Hendrix-like in its smearing vibrato. His sectionmates, Greg Heffernan and Chris Hoffman, let him finish unaccompanied before stepping in with a tag team of Middle Eastern–tinged bowing and facile plucking. The ensemble’s other half joined the fray gradually—first Kavee, with rippling cymbal accents, then Davila, with an artfully strained solo, and finally Threadgill, with a jarring alto saxophone interjection that provided the piece’s first gravitational center.
Whether playing notated phrases or improvised lines, Threadgill was far and away the most commanding voice. Partly this was a matter of timbre—even after switching to flute halfway through the suite, he pierced the polyphony easily—but it also had a lot to do with his teasing, angular sense of phrase. In the second movement, he and Hoffman went head to head on alto and cello, while Heffernan and Kodheli scraped disconsolately and Kavee stoked polyrhythmic fires; it was the first of two peaks in a consistently gripping performance. The second came near the finale, as Threadgill, on flute, soared over a storm of pizzicato, coolly dropping whole-tone runs and even an errant blue note or two. Unruly but in no way anarchic, it somehow all added up.