Cuneiform Records


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The label's new Microscopic Septet discs demonstrate perfectly that 'commercial' interest and musical innovation are by no means mutually exclusive.
"I've spent 23 years trying to disappoint people—I love doing that," Cuneiform frontman Steve Feigenbaum laughs, but there's a lot of truth to the quip. Since the spring of 1984, the small but prolific label has been thwarting expectation in or near or in-between a number of genres, that misunderstood and mislabeled beast known as "prog" being only one. When pressed further on the label's focus, Feigenbaum says only that he wants to put out music "wide enough in scope that nobody can stick us in a box... I don't want to have a jazz label, I don't want to have a rock label, I don't want a prog label—just when people develop expectations about what I'm releasing, I want to hear them saying, 'He put that out?'"

From the rustically meditative beauty of Richard Leo Johnson's guitar work to the dark and improv-heavy chamber music of the reformed Univers Zero, the label eschews boundaries with a cunning born of long practice and consideration. This has certainly been true of the music that Cuneiform releases that might be placed in the jazz category. From the fusion-infested multimetric ruminations of Sweden's Mats/Morgan band to the funky world-beat long-form compositions championed by Henry Kaiser and Wadada Leo Smith's Yo Miles! Project, diversity is front and center with every item in the catalogue. The label has also taken a special interest in the British improvised music scene, including important archival issues from the seminal South African expatriate band Brotherhood of Breath and from the immensely underrated composer Graham Collier. Seven historical releases from avant jazz-rockers Soft Machine have set new standards in quality; the latest, The Middle Earth Masters, provides a snapshot into the 1967 Softs that will likely prove to be one of the most valuable documents of that period ever to surface.

Cuneiform's documentation of British improv is certainly not relegated to archives and dusty corners of memory. Since 1992, the label has championed the work of Mujician, releasing their eighth album this past summer. Mujician is the project of saxophonist Paul Dunmall, pianist Keith Tippett, bassist Paul Rogers and drummer Tony Levin and while all involved have had long and distinguished careers in jazz, the music they've made since forming in 1989 is as diverse as it is engaging, ranging from the most intricate duo and trio interplay to post-Trane and Ayler screech and scronk. A trio version of the group—minus Tippett—will be making its US debut at The Stone in December.

It's fantastic to see Cuneiform getting more involved in what Feigenbaum flippantly but tellingly calls "jazzy jazz". He puts the success of this new focus on major label reluctance to issue new jazz, concentrating more on reissuing the tried-and-true than taking a chance on something adventurous. "It gives me a chance to get music that I might not have had access to before; I now have material that is musically interesting and that I believe will sell." This dialectic—unpredictability and accessibility—seems to be at the heart of the matter and there is an element of accessibility in every jazz release on the label thus far. However, accessibility should never be confused with mundaneness or predictability.

The label's new Microscopic Septet discs demonstrate perfectly that "commercial" interest and musical innovation are by no means mutually exclusive. Released as two double-disc sets, Seven Men in Neckties and Surrealistic Swing, these welcome anthologies reissue the group's entire catalogue, making available again some of the most interesting music to come out of the downtown New York scene of the late '80s and early '90s. Under the direction of saxophonist/composer Philip Johnston, the group made four albums, collected here with the obligatory bonus tracks, singles and outtakes, including alternate versions of the now-famous Fresh Air theme, which has never made it to CD before. This reissue campaign is not Feigenbaum's first association with Johnston or with the septet. "I first met Philip when we were doing the Fast and Bulbous Captain Beefheart tribute project with Gary Lucas. I had heard of the Microscopics and I even owned the first album, Take the Z-Train, although I hadn't heard it for a long time." The Microscopics have regrouped for a one-off tour this fall and if they sound anything like they did on these collections, the shows should be great.

Much of the jazz-based music on Cuneiform is similarly genre-busting; groups like Curlew and the deservedly lauded Claudia Quintet led by drummer John Hollenbeck are witty, exploratory, complex and often whimsical, showing just how far this music has come in its hundred year history. Next May however, the label turns a new page in its jazz catalogue with the release of a Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd quartet disc; taken largely from the group's final US tour, it will also contain approximately 25 minutes of material from 1962, presenting a welcome overview of this long-standing and influential duo. It only shows that there's no telling what corner of the market this consistently high-quality label will invade next.

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