Over the 15 years of its existence, Pi Recordings has been the home of musical innovators both established and up and coming. Its catalogue includes works by such legends as composer and woodwind player Henry Threadgill
, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams
and other members of the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). The imprint is also where such rising talents as trumpeter Amir ElSaffar
and guitarist Liberty Ellman
launched their careers. Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang helm Pi and limit themselves to five releases per year. This focus on quality over quantity has made them one of the significant independent labels in the world of jazz and improvised music. Below is their output for the year 2016.
Henry Threadgill Old Locks and Irregular Verbs Pi Recordings
Pi Recordings' finest release of 2016 is Threadgill's Old Locks and Irregular Verbs
. Coming shortly after the Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece In For A Penny, In For A Pound
(Pi Recordings, 2015), Old Locks and Irregular Verbs
consists of a single commissioned piece Inspired by and dedicated to Threadgill's friend, idiosyncratic cornetist and conductor, Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris
The beguiling music features Threadgill's new band in over 15 years, Ensemble Double Up. Among other superb artists the group includes two individualistic pianists, Jason Moran
and David Virelles
. Their contrasting and complementary styles are best heard on the expansive and cinematic "Part 4." Moran's vivid, impressionistic phrases shimmer against Virelles' dark, resonant chords.
Over the stimulating collective rumble the alto saxophonists Roman Filiu
and Curtis Macdonald
wail with passion. The two men showcase their unique sounds throughout the disc and particularly with their respective, intricate solos on the intensely haunting "Part 1." Within the dense and dramatic harmonies, the agile and acerbic lines of one lead to the warm and reverberating tones of the other.
Intrepid drummer Craig Weinrib
propels the stimulating music with his complex rhythmic flourishes and thunderous beats while cellist Christopher Hoffman
laces it with a contemplative melancholy. Lastly tubist Jose Davila
engages his bandmates in intriguing conversation as he handles his "unwieldy" horn with graceful fluidity and lithe elegance.
Threadgill himself does not perform on this exquisite disc. His indelible mark, however, is present throughout this spiritual and moving paean to Morris. This is a work that sublimely balances emotion and intellect.
Tyshawn Sorey The Inner Spectrum Of Variables Pi Recordings
Another uniquely stimulating release is drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey's magnum opus The Inner Spectrum Of Variables
. The seven-part suite, spread out over two CDS, is dramatic in its ambience and ambitious in its breadth. The complex overlapping harmonic elements straddle the genres of western classical music and jazz.
Sorey endows the melancholic "Reverie" with a somber and haunting atmosphere with his unaccompanied brassy tolls and chimes as well as resonant thuds and thrums. Utilizing a double trio format Sorey creates sublime contrasts by forging a single voice out of each of the two sections. Versatile pianist Cory Smythe
and virtuosic bassist Christopher Tordini
together with Sorey engage in angular and rumbling ensemble refrains that Smythe's percussive chords punctuate. The strings, violinist Fung Chern Hwei
, violist Kyle Armburst and cellist Rubin Kodheli
, play with wistful passion and fiery intelligence.
The individual members of the group exquisitely interact with one another. A perfect example of this is Tordini's and Kodheli's brief yet compelling duet on "Movement IV." Around this dialogue coalesce the other instruments with exuberant lyricism and tango-esque ardor. Smythe's energetic solo leads to the gripping climax marked by band's collective furious performance.
As Sorey leads his ensemble through the intricacies his work he creates delightfully stimulating tension within the piece itself. For instance, on Disc 1 the music progresses from stately, almost baroque structure, on the first two movements, to thrilling dissonance and unfettered spontaneity on the third.
Within a relatively short career Sorey has proven himself a preeminent composer and an innovative drummer. His intrepid explorative sense and his rapidly maturing ingenuity have fully blossomed on this superb set.
Dan Weiss Sixteen: Drummers Suite Pi Recordings
Another drummer's, the idiosyncratic improviser and composer, Dan Weiss' compelling Sixteen: Drummers Suite
, is also on Pi Recordings. On it Weiss augments the large ensemble from his imaginative Fourteen
(Pi Recordings, 2014) with expressive alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon
and adventurous flautist Anna Webber
. This dynamic and compelling album derives its inspiration from the works of six legendary drummers and is dedicated to them. The music is not a reinterpretation of the honorees' works nor necessarily derivative of them as Weiss has, long ago, forged his own distinctive style.
On "Philly Joe" (Jones), for instance, Weiss and percussionist Stephen Cellucci
duet with breathtaking agility. In their combined virtuosity, they channel Jones' own fiery and graceful ease. The collective otherworldly sound of soaring voices and swirling instruments give the piece an intriguing and majestic feel much like Jones' own approach to his kit.
Weiss also showcases individual band members alternating their performances with that of the ensemble. Bassist Thomas Morgan opens "Tony" (Williams) with a lyrical and melancholic solo. Alternating instruments and voices over thundering beats create a dramatic ambience and a delightfully dissonant melee. Two saxophones weave passionate and resonant lines through the expectant backdrop. Pianist Jacob Sacks
somber keys close the tune.
The piece with the most western classical influence is "Ed," penned for drummer Ed Blackwell. The exquisitely evolving piece is almost symphonic in its breadth. It concludes with guitarist Miles Okazaki
's serene and darkly hued contemplative melody.
With every release Weiss further solidifies his place as one of contemporary music's most exciting composers and drummers. This recording is no exception, in fact, it may even be the highpoint of his superb output.
Steve Lehman & Sélébéyone Sélébéyone Pi Recordings
One of the most intriguing and unconventional releases of 2016 is saxophonist Steve Lehman's Sélébéyone
. Following the critically acclaimed Mise en Abîme
(Pi Recordings 2014), Sélébéyone
finds Lehman in a completely different setting thus showcasing his versatility. Mixing Senegalese rap, American Hip Hop and jazzy sensibilities Lehamn celebrates the spontaneity in musical creation in its various guises. The album, in fact is full of fascinating and provocative contrasts.
The infectious "Cognition" for instance matches Lehman's gritty meandering improvisation with his protégé and fellow saxophonist Maciek Lasserre's fluid and wistful one. While Senegalese spoken word artist Gaston aka Bandimic complements HPrizm aka High Priest's evocative and dramatic performance with his chant like recitation.
The electrifying atmosphere crackles with both the cinematic sound effects as well as the hypnotic, percolating beats. Pianist Carlos Homs
contributes a lyrical and darkly hued undercurrent to the rumbling exciting rhythmic melee. This is best heard on the contemplative and otherworldly "Bamba" that also features Lasserre's fiery soprano and drummer Damion Reid
's thundering beats.
Bassist Drew Gress
joins Reid to create a throbbing and stirring backdrop on the energetic "Origins." The stimulating track is notable for Lasserre and Lehman's thrilling saxophone duel. After framing Gaston's haunting monologue, Lasserre' serpentine and lithe phrases meander around Gress and Reid's dark and expectant rumble while Lehman burns a sonic path through with agile lines and reverberating tones.
With each new release Lehman presents refreshingly new ideas without losing his singular voice. Ever the innovator, majority of his work has been recorded for Pi as he is a perfect fit for the label's vision.
Jonathan Finlayson Moving Still Pi Recordings
Last but not the least comes trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson's Moving Still
with his quintet Sicilian Defense. Finlayson, a long-time member of alto saxophonist Steve Coleman
's Five Elements recorded his debut album Moment and the Message
to wide acclaim on Pi in 2013. After a busy three years as a much sought after sideman, Finlayson returns with a mordant and gripping sophomore record.
Opening with the expansive "All of the Pieces" the disc sets a cinematic tone that transforms with each track but remains, conceptually, tightly cohesive. Okazaki's Spanish tinged and melancholic guitar lines flow over the rumbling rhythm section. Out of this simmering backdrop emerges pianist Matt Mitchell
with a contemplative cascading solo that hints at western classical influences. Finlayson's resonant notes build a lithe and expressive soliloquy over the restless rhythmic embellishments.
The most evocative piece perhaps is the tender and intriguing "Between Moves." A pensive and wistful duet between bassist John Hébert
and Okazaki brings an eastern touch to the music. Hébert bows with exquisite lyricism while Okazaki's strings ardently shimmer. Mitchell's pealing keys echo while Weinrib's cymbals sparkle and crash adding another cinematic dimension to the tune. Finlayson blows passionately and poetically over the percolating collective vamps.
The ensemble uses repetitive, overlapping motifs on the vibrant "Space And" to haunting effect. Mitchell's chant like phrases alternate with Finlayson's fiery refrains leading to Mitchell's crystalline and angular solo while Hébert performs with taut energy and Weinrib makes his kit rumble. Finlayson takes center stage with languid, undulating lines that grow fiercer and more restless concluding on an expectant note Moving Still
is a provocative and stirring work that showcases Finlayson as a mature and inventive composer and improviser. Although he brings several influences to his music his sound remains singularly unique. In that he is at home among the exceptional artists that make up Pi Recordings roster.
Tracks and Personnel Old Locks and Irregular Verbs
Tracks: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four.
Personnel: Henry Threadgill: composition; Jason Moran: piano; David Virelles: piano; Roman Filiu: alto saxophone; Curtis MacDonald: alto saxophone; Christopher Hoffman: cello; Jose Davila: tuba; Craig Weinrib: drums. The Inner Spectrum Of Variables
Tracks: Disc 1: Movement I (Introduction); Movement II; Movement III; Disc 2: Reverie; Movement IV; Movement V + VI + Reprise.
Personnel: Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Cory Smythe: piano; Christopher Tordini: bass; Fung Chern Hwei: violin; Kyle Armburst: viola; Rubin Kodheli: violoncello. Sixteen: The Drummers' Suite
Tracks: The Drummers Meet; Elvin; Max; Tony; Philly Joe; Klook; Ed.
Personnel: Dan Weiss: compositions, drums, tabla, vocal percussion; Thomas Morgan: acoustic bass; Jacob Sacks: piano; Matt Mitchell: keyboard, piano, glockenspiel, organ, vibraphone; Miles Okazaki: guitars, vocal percussion; Stephen Cellucci: percussion, vocal percussion; Katie Andrews: harp; Anna Webber: flute, alto flute; David Binney: alto saxophone; Miguel Zenon: alto saxophone; Ohad Talmor: tenor saxophone; Jacob Garchik: trombone, tuba; Ben Gerstein: trombone; Judith Berkson: voice; Lana Is: voice; Jen Shyu: voice. Sélébéyone
Tracks: Laamb; Are You In Peace?; Akap; Origine; Cognition; Hybrid; Dualis; Geminou; Bamba.
Personnel: Gaston Bandimic: vocals; HPrizm: vocals; Steve Lehman: alto saxophone; Maciek Lasserre: soprano saxophone; Carlos Homs: piano, keyboards; Drew Gress: acoustic bass; Damion Reid: drum set. Moving Still
Tracks: All Of The Pieces; Flank And Center; Space And; Cap vs. Nim; Between Moves; Folk Song.
Personnel: Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Miles Okazaki: guitar; Matt Mitchell: piano; John Hébert: bass; Craig Weinrib: drums.