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Astral Spirits: Lifting the Spirit of Jazz

Astral Spirits: Lifting the Spirit of Jazz
Jakob Baekgaard By

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I want to release albums that are both challenging musically and to sell. Albums that make people do a double-take or wonder what they are listening to rather than something that just follows along a particular genre specific path. —Nate Cross
While pop often follows predictable musical patterns, one of the greatest qualities about jazz is its sense of adventurousness and the ability to take the listener on a journey where the destination is unknown. The Astral Spirits label, based in Austin, Texas, and run by musician Nate Cross, truly embraces this quality of jazz.

This year, 2019, the label celebrates its five-year anniversary and the quality and scope of the catalog is already dazzling with 100+ releases that span all kinds of sounds that Cross overall characterizes with the tagline "The New Wave of Heavy Free Jazz." But make no mistake, listeners scared away by wailing saxophones and distorted guitars will also find something to like on Astral Spirits. It's just a matter of exploration and there is plenty to explore on the label. Cross releases music in several physical formats and even has a digital imprint, Astral Editions, with a subscription plan. Such Chicago jazz scene heavyweights as Hamid Drake, Chad Taylor, Jeb Bishop, Rob Mazurek, Matthew Lux and Ken Vandermark have recorded for the label and new Chicago profiles like drummer Charles Rumback, guitarist Tim Stine and saxophonists Dustin Laurenzi and Nick Mazzarella are represented as well. Big names like guitarist Thurston Moore and saxophonist Joe McPhee also feature, but Astral Spirits is less about the names and more about the spirit of the music that transcends genres and geography. It's natural for Cross to be curious about music and spread the joy of new sounds, and it all goes back to a record store in Bloomington.

All About Jazz: Could you tell about your own background and how you got into experimental jazz and improvisation?

Astral Spirits: I grew up in Fort Wayne, IN which is a pretty typical midwestern Indiana town and as you can imagine I didn't get a lot of exposure to jazz or improvisation beyond High School Jazz Band. I took piano lessons as a kid, and then started playing guitar around 13 years old. Most of my early exposure to music was through my brothers who were a bit older than me and through a good friend whose dad played in a cover band (which when we were 13 seemed pretty cool). My friend and I would play guitar and drums together in their basement and eventually started a band in high school, which for Fort Wayne was a little "weird." Leaving Fort Wayne and heading to college at IU in Bloomington, IN was where the awakening took place.

All About Jazz: What happened then?

There is a record store in Bloomington (that is still there, but the owner Tom Donahue has since passed away) called TD's CD's & LP's, and Tom was this amazing guy who was the quintessential record store owner. I'd buy a Chicago Underground Duo album or something similar and he'd tell me "oh have you heard of the DKV Trio? or these Fred Anderson reissues? or this Mats Gustafsson/David Grubbs album? or Jim O'Rourke?" (Funny side story: Tom also spent some time in Austin in the 80's and did not like it at all...I remember him getting mad when I told him I was moving to Austin, and he'd tell me what was so terrible about it. Ha)

BUT, a lot of my formative listening was thanks to Tom (and I would bet a lot of money that there were a lot of folks who owe their musical taste to Tom). Bloomington was also where I saw Peter Brötzmann (with William Parker and Hamid Drake) for the first time, I saw a local group recreate Miles Davis' "Dark Magus" and so many other amazing things. Not to mention weekend trips to Chicago to see all kinds of amazing things including going to the Velvet Lounge.

AAJ: When did you form the label and was there any particular reason why it happened?

AS: I started Astral Spirits in September 2014. Initially it grew out of a desire to continue to take part in the music industry. I spent a healthy amount of time in the mid-late 2000's touring with bands etc and as I got a little older and more settled, I was hoping to find a way to stay involved in music without as much touring. It was a blast, but I was hitting a point where I wanted something a little more steady.

I also had an idea of trying to do shows or a series of some kind in Austin, especially after years of going to Epistrophy Arts shows etc. After talking with a few folks, I ended up getting involved with Morgan Coy and Monofonus Press. He sorta helped steer me away from shows and into doing more of a traditional record label, which I think I wanted to do more of a traditional label, I just didn't have the experience and was nervous about the idea. Morgan and the rest of the Monofonus crew (Cory Plump & Will Slack) helped get me up and running and helped me learn & grow a ton over the last 5 years.

AAJ: Could you tell a bit more about your connection with the Monofonus Press?

AS: Monofonus Press is my parent (or sister) label. Morgan started Monofonus Press 12 years ago to put out records as well as books, zines, and more. Basically, Monofonus Press took on Astral Spirits as a sister/parent/sub label which was great to have the additional support to get Astral up and running. Monofonus focused more on rock, experimental and outsider music, so it made sense for them to bring on Astral Spirits as a sub label since there was some crossover potential for new listeners through each label. However, Monofonus Press is closing at the end of 2019, so I'll be off on my own starting in 2020.

AAJ: Speaking of being on your own, how many people are involved in running the label?

AS: Astral Spirits is a one-man operation for better or worse. For the first 4 years I had a healthy amount of help from Morgan, Cory, and Will from Monofonus Press but in the end, it's pretty much always been just me, all press, shipping, website, etc is done in house by myself. Now I want to be clear that I'm not trying to be high and mighty about this, I definitely understand the benefits of hiring PR firms, or fulfillment, etc, I've had both good and bad experiences with that in the past, but I feel pretty comfortable handling it all myself at the moment. It's a lot of work and hard to juggle at times (especially with family, dayjob, etc) but I've purposefully kept it a solo endeavor because I want to maintain control over the label's growth and scope. I will include Jaimie Zuverza (who does the main share of art & layout) and Nick LaRoche (who does some layout/art as well as all the photography that you see on the website/bandcamp).

AAJ: How is a day at work for you? How many different things do you have to take care of when you run a label?

AS: Well, a typical day at work for me is going to work at my dayjob from 8-5, then getting kids fed and into bed after work, and then I try to find time between 8pm-12am or so to do the shipping and other day to day operations. So I wouldn't say I'm the typical label owner, but it also depends on which sort of label we're talking about.

I've never meant for the label to be my job that I make a living from, it's been more of a hobby that's turned into a thing. But truly I think separating myself from the "need" to make a living off it keeps it exciting and allows me a little more freedom and more leeway to play a curatorial role as opposed to it being a side hustle. I also like having a dayjob and family that is completely separate from my life running the label. Sure, things overlap in certain ways, but being able to step away from the label when needed, and not having to focus 100% of my time onto it gives me a lot of good perspective on why I want to keep doing it.

AAJ: Do you have other projects or initiatives besides running a label? Are you interested in art in general and do you see a connection between what you do and the art scene?

AS: Outside of the label itself I still play music, it's just in a non-jazz vein. Most significantly at the moment I play with the group USA/Mexico (with Craig Clouse of Shit & Shine and King Coffey of Butthole Surfers). It's incredibly fun (and humbling) to play with those two folks...and similarly playing music completely outside of jazz is a nice way to step back and see a different perspective.

I do love art in general and was particularly fascinated by film in college (it was one of my majors at IU) and I am still fascinated by film, although I don't have quite as much time with kids these days. I would say that I try my best to run Astral Spirits with a sense of an art scene: lots of deliberate curation, trying to run the label with a sense of what it will look like or be a part of in the grand scheme of improv music and jazz music. I'm only 5 years in so I've just made a small dent at best and just hoping to continue down that path.

AAJ: Growing up, what kind of labels did you admire, and which labels do you consider kindred spirits now?

AS: Like almost anyone else interested in jazz, I was first drawn to Blue Note and Impulse!—Impulse! was really the one that blew my mind aesthetically and musically, I more or less have copied the look of the LP spine from them in an "homage" to what they did. Eventually I started to come across other more "out" labels that fascinated me—BYG/Actuel, ESP-Disk, Tzadik, India Navigation, Nessa, FMR, AUM Fidelity, No Business Records and so many more. It always seemed like the labels I loved had a very distinct design or look.

I'd also say that growing up in the midwest (Indiana to be exact) in the 90's/early 2000's, the Chicago jazz scene had a rather profound impact on me (and still does), especially labels like Okka Disk, Delmark, Eremite, Hefty (let's not forget that Hefty released those Phil Ranelin/Tribe albums in the 2000's!), Atavistic's Unheard Music Series, Thrill Jockey, and Drag City. Also going to college in Bloomington, IN in that time period I was able to sorta see the growth of these small indie labels up close. Secretly Canadian and Jagjaguwar were "big indies" then, but they are huge now. Also in that same time frame was when Eric Weddle's amazing Family Vineyard label was taking off.

As far as modern day kindred spirit labels, it's been amazing to watch International Anthem grow and become this amazing label in more or less the same time frame as when I started. It's great to see that there is a lot wider space (and audience) now for what can be under the "jazz" label. I'd love to say that Family Vineyard is now a kindred spirit since we recently did the Jim Sauter & Kid Millions Safe & Sane LP together. Also Northern Spy, Trouble In Mind, Open Mouth, Feeding Tube, and plenty of tape labels— Hausu Mountain, Fort Evil Fruit, Null Zone/Garden Portal, Tombed Visions, Mondoj, Weekertoft. I'm funnily hesitant to tag too many labels that I don't know personally, but hopeful that one day I'll be considered kindred spirits with lots of them. Always room to grow!

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