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Astral Spirits: Lifting the Spirit of Jazz

Jakob Baekgaard By

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AAJ: Your visual design is very distinctive. Could you talk about the logo, artwork and design and how you have arrived at your look and tell about the people who have helped creating it?

AS: I knew from the start that I wanted the label to be just as visually striking as musically. I worked with my good friend and amazing artist Mason McFee in the beginning. He created the logo and created the initial tape & LP layouts. He did all the artwork for the first two years' worth of tapes & LP's. I had hired Mason McFee to create the logo and layout templates before I had even started the label. Mason did a handful of different logo designs and this is the one that just popped out at me. It's unique (hand drawn) and very recognizable. Funnily I recently went back through some of the designs Mason did and have thought about pulling out some just for fun and to change things up. There are some other really amazing ones looking back at them in hindsight.

We made a switch after that because Mason just got too busy with other work and luckily I've been using the equally amazing artist Jaime Zuverza ever since. Some folks may recognize Jaime's work from other bigger name artists (like Wooden Shjips, Golden Dawn Arkestra and more), so it's really exciting to have him working with us. His art is definitely a huge part of the labels draw.

For some recent LP's we've also used some other artists from time to time including Bill Nace, Damon Locks, Id M Theft Able and more. But I still think it all fits together nicely within the Astral Spirits "template."

AAJ: The covers seem to find inspiration in surrealism and abstract art. How do you see the connection between the artwork and the music you release?

AS: I think this would be a better question for the artists I use! For the most part I've been using the absolutely amazing Jaime Zuverza, and to his incredible credit he does take the time to actually listen to the music while he's creating the artwork. Even though it's a template you can see that he's actually paying attention or doing these subtle little things that I think do create this relationship between the art and music, even if it is in retrospect.

I've also used Tiny Little Hammers to do artwork for Astral Editions, and a handful of other amazing artists have done art for some one offs including Bill Nace (Alcorn/McPhee/Vandermark), Id M Theft Able (Kuzu), Paco Barba/Harmonipan (Rob Mazurek 'Marfa Trilogy'), Damon Locks (Quin Kirchner & KVL), and more.

AAJ: Do you include additional information like liner notes and photography or video in your releases?

AS: Yes on occasion. I've had Clifford Allen do liner notes for a dozen or so releases, and a few releases have featured some photography inserts/booklets. Most notably I'd say would be the Rodrigo Amado & Chris Corsano No Place To Fall album that has an 8 page booklet with liners from Allen and a lot of great photography. I'd love to work more with photography in the future but I'm not exactly sure how to incorporate it into the current artwork aesthetic.

AAJ: Could you tell about some of the studios you use? What is the perfect sound to you? Do you prefer the studio or live recordings?

AS: Generally speaking, a lot of the recording process is done before I even hear the releases. Most times demos are sent to me just needing mastering or completely finished. HOWEVER, there are a handful of releases that I've made happen by putting people into a studio here in Austin. Both Icepick's Amaranth and Alcorn/McPhee/Vandermark Invitation To A Dream were recorded at Ian Rundell's studio here in Austin. The studio is just a little backhouse in my neighborhood, it is definitely no frills and very DIY, but I love the place. Ian primarily records punk & rock records (a lot of Monofonus Press, 12XU Records, and more recorded here), but I love the way he works. It also rings true to the more DIY ethos I like to have with Astral Spirits.

And I don't know if I have a preference for studio vs. live recordings BUT I tend to like recordings that are a little more "raw" or "live" sounding. I don't want to be so obvious as to blatantly pronounce that it should sound more like punk rock or something BUT I think having the subtle rawness (I just mean this in terms of sound, not the playing) can go a long way. ECM made their "chamber" sound one of its primary traits...when you think of an ECM record it already has a certain sound. I don't think I've gotten that far with Astral Spirits, but I'd love for people to think of it as being more in your face.

AAJ: You mention ECM. Manfred Eicher has a very distinctive role as a producer on his label. What is your role when it comes to the music you release? Do you play an active part as a producer?

AS: There have been a handful of projects with me being a producer of sorts, or maybe more of an executive producer but I try to keep my hands off of the music itself unless the artist wants me involved (and even then it's usually just more about sequencing or something like that).

AAJ: What are your ambitions for the future? Are you optimistic when it comes to the future of jazz and Astral Spirits in particular?

AS: I am indeed optimistic about the future of jazz/improvised music in general, mostly because of the sheer number of really, really good demos that I get. I probably put out about 1/10 of the amount of music that's pitched or sent as unsolicited demos, and honestly a lot of it is really quite good. My only slight worry is that there is a tendency to focus on the "superstars" in jazz. I think we're seeing more press for jazz/improvised music in general but if you look at it all you'll see the same 10-15 names or albums. When in reality there are probably 100's of artists and albums that don't have the same name recognition but deserve attention as much if not moreso. The clicks, likes, spotify playlists, PR companies etc tend to be driving factors in what artists get attention rather than the music itself. But there will always be a healthy underground scene and I think we're seeing that right now especially in improvised/jazz music.

AAJ: You have created an ambitious sampler that tells the story of the first five years of the label. Could you talk about the process of compiling it?

AS: I actually took some inspiration from the Black Truffle label's (incredible label run by Oren Ambarchi) 10 year anniversary compilation that also came out relatively recently, but I quickly realized that I couldn't possibly include tracks (even edits of tracks) from every release over the past 5 years because it would just be insanely long.

I also wanted to use this 5 year anniversary as a way to help raise some additional funds for future releases (I want to try to do a few pretty ambitious things next year) BUT I don't really like the GoFundMe's and other crowdfunding platforms in terms of labels using them. I think they are great for real life type things but for a label it feels disingenuous.

AAJ: Finally, could you tell about your release schedule and some of the future releases on your label?

AS: We have three excellent debut recordings in November to close out 2019:

KVL: Volume 1. The debut release from the long running trio of Quin Kirchner, Daniel Van Duerm & Matthew Lux. With special guest Jaimie Branch on one track as well.

Amirtha Kidambi & Lea Bertucci: Phase Eclipse. Debut release from this incredibly talented duo.

Tetuzi Akiyama/Nicolas Field/Gregor Vidic: Interpersonal Subjectivities. Debut release from the EU/Japan trio with legendary Japanese guitarist Akiyama against the drums/sax duo of Field/Vidic.

We also have a lot of our 2020 releases lined up...don't have a lot of specific release dates but it will include releases from: Mako Sica/Hamid Drake, Quin Kirchner, Sarah Hennies, Kuzu (Rempis/Dorji/Damon), Charles Rumback with Jim Baker & John Tate, Anahuac (3 different releases!), Crazy Doberman, Claire Rousay & Alex Cunningham, Brandon Seabrook / Cooper-Moore / Gerald Cleaver, Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl, Luke Stewart, Otomo Yoshihide & Chris Pitsiokos, and more!

A Guide to the Universe of Astral Spirits

Astral Spirits is lifting the spirit of jazz. The best way to get familiar with the label is to dive into the sampler Astral Ascending: Celebrating five years of Astral Spirits Records (Astral Spirits, 2019). Here follows Nate Cross' own comments to each track on the compilation, originally published as the notes for the album.

  • Quin Kirchner Group: "Together We Can Explore The Furthest Beyond (Live)" Exclusive live track from Quin Kirchner and his expanded nonet at the Hungry Brain in Chicago, this was from Kirchner's LP release show. Look for Kirchner's sophomore LP coming soon!


  • Rob Mazurek: "Love Waves" From Rob Mazurek's recent 2019 release Love Waves Ecstatic Charge.


  • Michael Foster & Ben Bennett: "Lint Crepper" Exclusive track from Michael Foster & Ben Bennett's upcoming 2020 release! An intense followup to their 2017 Astral Spirits tape In It.


  • Rempis / Piet / Daisy: "Live" Exclusive track from the trio that brought us the outstanding Throw Tomatoes album we released back in early 2018.


  • Dustin Laurenzi's Snaketime: "Maybe" Exclusive track recorded live at the same time as the Snaketime LP but not released previously!


  • Berman / Lytton/ Roebke: "Oslo (edit)" Edit of the bonus track off the trio's upcoming/current LP release Trio Discrepancies.


  • Lisa Cameron & Sandy Ewen: "Live in Austin" Exclusive live track from a rare duo gig in ATX. Look for more from this dynamic duo in 2020!


  • Mako Sica/Hamid Drake: "Enchanted City (Live)" Exclusive live track from Mako Sica & Hamid Drake who have returned and will be releasing The Balancing Tear in 2020!! This is a live version of a song that will appear on the album.


  • Harris Eisenstadt Old Growth Forest: "Shaded Canopy" Track from Harris Eisenstadt's 2019 OGF release II with Jeb Bishop, Tony Malaby & Jason Roebke.


  • Spires That In The Sunset Rise: "X Stat Eight" Track from their now OOP early 2019 release House Ecstatic (Cover Your Blood).


  • Patrick Shiroishi: "Your Freedom is More Important Than Their Anger" Exclusive solo track from one of our favorite young saxophone players on the scene. He's been on two different Astral Spirits releases, his Borasisi quartet album we released earlier in 2019 and the upcoming Komeshi Trio (with Noel Mee & Peter Kolovos album that will see the light of day in Oct 2019!


  • Evangelista / Hawkins / Moholo-Moholo / Watts: "FDT" A track from the upcoming 2020 2xCD release of this unbelievable quartet of Karl Alfonso Evangelista, Alexander Hawkins, Louis Moholo-Moholo & Trevor Watts!!! The first recordings of Moholo-Moholo & Watts together in a long long time!


  • Charles Rumback with Ron Miles, Macie Stewart & Nick Macri—"Neve" Exclusive track from this Rumback led quartet featuring fellow Astral alum Macie Stewart and legend Ron Miles! Whether this album sees the light of day on Astral Spirits is to be seen BUT we will have another Charles Rumback album coming in 2020!!


  • Claire Rousay: "Lovers" Exclusive track from Claire Rousay, who we will hear much more from soon with two different duos with Alex Cunningham and Carol Genetti.


  • John Butcher & Stale Liavik Solberg: "Sunshine Harpsichord" Exclusive track from the 2/3's of the group (minus Pat Thomas) that brought us the incredible Fictional Souvenirs album released earlier in 2019.


  • TILTH: "Turquoise Socks" Exclusive track from the duo of Cody Yantis & Nathan McLaughlin. You may remember McLaughlin from the 2017 HMS release we did.


  • Bloor: "Splice (for Arthur Blythe)" From Bloor's debut album Drolleries. Sam Weinberg, Andrew Smiley & Jason Nazary doing amazing things!


  • Brandon Seabrook: "Celibate Cluster" Exclusive solo track from guitar maestro and all around amazing person Brandon Seabrook! We released his String Trio Convulsionaries back in 2018 and we'll have another exciting Seabrook release coming in 2020!


  • Jaap Blonk / Jeb Bishop / Damon Smith/ Weasel Walter: "Live at Williamantic Records" Exclusive track from this mindblowing quartet. We've been lucky to have multiple releases with Jeb Bishop and Damon Smith. Hopefully more soon from them and others in this group.


  • Macie Stewart & Lia Kohl: "Toothpick Bicycle" A track from their Astral Editions album Pocket Full of Bees. Their officially Astral Spirits release coming at you in 2020.


  • Fred Lonberg-Holm / Anton Hatwich / Avreeayl Ra: "Hazmat" Exclusive track from this trio that have all graced various Astral Sprits releases over the last 5 years!


  • Tashi Dorji & Tyler Damon: "First Cut" Track from their 2017 release Live at The Spot +1 Tashi Dorji & Tyler Damon make up 2/3's of KUZU as well and we'll have a brand new LP from them in the not too distant future!


  • Nathan Alexander Pape & Patrick Breiner: "find the sky is a cart" Exclusive track from their upcoming Oct 2019 Astral Editions release Ground Air.


  • Nick Mazzarella Trio: "The Puzzle" Track from their recent Counterbalance LP celebrating 10 years of the Nick Mazzarella trio!


  • Warsaw Improvisers Orchestra: "That (edit)" Track from the 2016 split release with Bouchons d'Oreilles we did. Still love how wild this sounds.


  • Icepick: "Rare Rufescent (edit)" Edit of a track from Icepick's (Nate Wooley, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, Chris Corsano) 2016 Amaranth LP! Look for a 3rd Icepick album (finally) in 2020!


  • Lotte Anker & Fred Lonberg-Holm: "The Frigid Air" Track from their 2017 split tape release.


  • Patrick Shiroishi & Noel Meek: "Live" Exclusive track from 2/3's of the upcoming Komeshi Trio group.


  • Tim Stine Trio: "dB (lowercase d, Big B)" Track from the self titled debut from the Tim Stine Trio back in 2016. TST will be back in 2020 with a new album!

  • Kobra Quartet: "Telly Attire" Officially out in October, Kobra Quartet is Aurora Nealand, Steve Marquette, Anton Hatwich & Paul Thibodeaux doing amazing things and our first release repping the Instigation Festival.


  • Rob Lundberg: "Pick" Track from his recently released Water Addendum Infrastructures album on Astral Editions.


  • Matthew Lux Communication Arts Quartet: "Israels'" Track from the Lux Quartet's now SOLD OUT CS/LP/VHS and one of my favorite tracks we've ever released on Astral Spirits. Seriously, this is the best ever.


  • Tredici Bacci: "Coda" Track from their 2015 release Vai! Vai! Vai!. Yep we released a Tredici Bacci cassette back in the day and it's amazing. Maybe we'll see a repress of it one day, who knows...
Photo Credit: Nick LaRoche

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