New Artists Records
New Artists being a cooperative, such a statement may contain an element of contradiction, but it stands at the heart of a label that has moved beyond simple categorization for nearly 30 years. The music produced blurs all manner of boundaries while maintaining a recognizable aesthetic, one in which spontaneous improvisation is fostered in ways that allow each contributor maximum freedom of expression.
The label began in 1982 with an outburst of improvised creativity when Crothers and drummer Max Roach recorded Swish, a stunning set of duo improvisations that boast such symbiosis, tight construction and extraordinary focus that they sometimes seem composed. "Max took this recording session to several record companies when he went on tour," explains Crothers, "but nobody expressed interest." When he got back, Roach decided to start a label on which to release it, along with recording projects of his own, inviting Crothers to be associated with this new label as a co-owner. "New Artists" was the name he chose for the company. His experience with such ventures dated back to the early '50s, an era of bold and innovative exploration in which he founded Debut Records with Charles Mingus. Crothers notes the connection between the two label names; "They're similar in intent. Both companies were established to give up-and-coming artists a fair chance to be heard and to express themselves without boundaries."
Almost immediately after the label's inception, Roach was offered a dream deal with Soul Note and his involvement with the fledgling company ceased. "Max was handling the label's financial matters, but after I released Concert at Cooper Union [recorded in 1984], the label was unsustainable as it was configured." Several years later, Crothers proposed the idea of a cooperative in which each artist would be free to produce whatever they saw fit, so long as each was prepared to share in labor and financial outlay to keep the label going. The first release was Duo Dimension, a Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz-influenced collaboration between Crothers and alto saxophonist Richard Tabnik, recorded in 1987. At present, there are 14 owners and New Artists matters are discussed at group meetings, either annually or more often as needed.
As the label broadened in scope, so did its collective aims and ambitions. The New Artists moniker took on entirely new meaning when Dick Twardzik's 1954 Improvisations was released. "He's just fantastic," Crothers beams. "And his contributions are still not recognized as they should be. The short-lived genius had a harmonic style similar only to Tristano and to Herbie Nichols, approaching each tune with a freedom and invention born equally of reverence and adventure. He may still be a new artist to many, though he was also a sadly neglected pioneer."
Twardzik's innovative approach is mirrored by many of the label's more recent projects in that, on the occasions when compositions are present, they serve as breeding grounds for long flights of fancy that nevertheless refer back to their most minute details. A case in point is Music is a Place, Crothers' latest quartet disc with Tabnik, bassist Ratzo Harris and drummer Roger Mancuso, in which definite structures birth imaginative journeys away from conventional time and harmony, employing huge dynamic and rhythmic range in the process.
That group, with Ken Filiano in the bass chair, will be one of many performing at The Stone during the two weeks that Crothers is curating late this month. The series of concerts will feature many label stalwarts, but more importantly, Crothers suggests, it will also allow those attending to hear world-class improvisers who simply have not had a chance to perform often enough. Of those associated with New Artists, Bud Tristano is certain to surprise; his duo recording with Crothers, Primal Elegance, blends wildly shredding guitar with Crothers' intricately voiced sonorities, the combination as successful as it is unorthodox. Dori Levine's vast range and emotive vocalizations will also be featured, as heard on her New Artists album Koo-Koo. There will also be sets featuring the extraordinary talent of pianist/vocalist Kazzrie Jaxen, witty guitarist and songwriter Andy Fite and pianist Virg Dzurinko.
Non-label artists will include the dynamic pianism of Ursel Schlicht and the violin work of Stefano Pastor, of whom Crothers says, "His playing is like nothing anyone has heard before." Bassist/violinist/poet Henry Grimes will perform in a quartet featuring saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, Crothers and drummer Chad Taylor. As with the label, the common thread is the diversity of spontaneous improvisation, even when the frameworks are composed. All of the concerts will be recorded by musician and engineer Ben Manley, so some of the material's eventual release remains a possibility.
As for the future of New Artists, Crothers is understandably non-committal. "It's hard to tell exactly where we're going, when anyone has the freedom to produce whatever is desired. We will continue doing what we've done since the cooperative came into being."