Bill Frisell's music is painterly. It inspires a lush, textured sense of motion. So do the works of artist Gerhard Richter. That these two were paired five years ago at an exhibition in San Francisco makes perfect sense. Eight of Richter's Abstract Pictures hung at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of a retrospective. In response to the visuals, Frisell composed a suite for his quartet which producer David Breskin recorded to accompany a limited edition art book. When Nonesuch passed on the project, Songlines, a basically one-man label from Vancouver, eagerly picked it up.
"I was quite enthusiastic about it," said Songlines founder Tony Reif, "being a big fan of Richter's work and having seen the paintings in San Francisco. But I thought the relationship between the music and the art is kind of a point here; is there some way we can give people who don't have the book but buy the CD a better way to see what the art is about and better assess the relationship on their own?" There was. To accompany the CD, Reif produced a CD-ROM that included the Richter paintings.
Producing Richter 858, as the album is called, has been a highlight for Reif. But as an audiophile he gets a lot of joy out of pretty much every project he works on, especially since acquiring the equipment necessary to produce Super Audio CDs (SACD), in 2001. "This is the way music should be presented," he said of the high-resolution format. "I really feel that multi- channel sound is so much more engrossing than stereo can ever be." But to achieve that quality, Reif has to sacrifice a lot of expense (extra costs for mixing, mastering, etc) and a bit of heartache (most people don't have the setup to hear the high-resolution recording properly). Combine that with the fact that digital downloads are the main point of access for music consumers these days and Reif's got himself quite a predicament. "These are niche products that audiophiles are supporting for the moment but it's hard to say what the future of these formats is going to be." He's hanging on to the hope of a technological advancement that would enable "high-resolution, multi-channel, digital downloads." Until then or, until he runs out of funds, he aims to put out about six albums a year.
The artists Reif selects have a strong identity and clear vision for their music. Take a stack of Songlines records and a range of styles pop out, from the free intensity of the label's very first album, clarinetist François Houle's live disc Et Cetera (1992), to the poetic structures of its most recent release, 24-year-old guitarist Ryan Blotnick's debut Music Needs You.
In between, there's a long list of fantastic artists, from trumpet player Dave Douglas to guitarist Hillmar Jensson to pianist Wayne Horvitz. The common ground is strikingly clear. Each album entices with a fresh alacrity. They're dynamic even when they're meant to sound calm. Take pianist Chris Gestrin's recently released After the City Has Gone: Quiet, for example. Prepared piano and percussion embark on a series of solos, duos and trios with cello, trumpet, trombone and other instruments, creating a two-disc set that invents something new with each track. The album's an impressive followup to the previous year's CD Gestrin did with guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Dylan van der Schyff, called The Distance, and the first disc he released on Songlines, Stillpoint, which Down Beat called "commensurate to Gestrin's rare and far-reaching vision." Not bad for a guy still in his 30s. Like Gestrin, many young players have found their footing with Songlines. Guitarist Brad Shepik has put out several releases on the label since the early '90s, including three with his power trio Babkas (with altoist Briggan Krauss and drummer Aaron Alexander). And 31-year-old guitarist Gordon Grdina recorded a trio album, Think Like The Waves, with his mentor, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian, which came out in 2006.
Reif likes to maintain a close relationship with all of his artists. Five albums from the Songlines catalog bear the name of the highly adventurous French pianist Benoît Delbecq, who Reif calls a good friend. "I think he's a genius," Reif said. " I like working with people whose music I really like and I guess people I like too. It does play a part in one's decision. I find it easier to work with people I know or at least I have met. If you're trying to sell someone's music and marketing it and promoting it, it helps to know something about them and have a rapport with them. I try to work really closely with the musicians."