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Pi Recordings: Dedicated to the Innovative

Pi Recordings: Dedicated to the Innovative

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In the pantheon of American music, jazz is especially noted for its rapid and drastic evolution. Considering that jazz evolved from big bands and swing, to bebop, to free jazz within thirty years, it is a history marked by distinct stylistic eras. For some time, the trajectory and potential development of jazz has been in question. Even determining what is jazz has become difficult. However, given its history, the amount of creative talent available and the relatively recent ability to distribute to niche markets, a new direction for the music seems inevitable.

Pi Recordings both documents and informs this change. In addition to releasing albums by jazz legends from Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Pi Recordings scouts, records and promotes young artists from the contemporary New York jazz scene. A glance at their roster reveals some of the biggest names in modern jazz, including Roscoe Mitchell, Vijay Iyer, Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and many others.

Founded in 2001 by Seth Rosner, who was joined by Yulun Wang in 2002, Pi Recordings now releases five albums each year. They focus on innovative, unique and, ultimately, significant composers and musicians on the contemporary jazz scene.

All About Jazz: What are the origins of Pi Recordings? Who was involved and what was the initial conception of the label?

Seth Rosner: Pi Recordings was formed in 2001. The initial goal was to release two recordings by Henry Threadgill. I met Henry when I worked at the Knitting Factory record label between 1997 and 1999. At a certain point I had learned enough to feel that I could release [these] two recordings, have them distributed widely, and be able to work the press and radio.

Henry's albums came out in the fall of the same year, which were very quickly followed by a Roscoe Mitchell recording, a Wadada Leo Smith recording, and a recording of the classic trio Fieldwork. Fieldwork featured Vijay Iyer, Aaron Stewart, and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums.

Based on the success of the albums and their reception, my enthusiasm for being able to start a label and do it my way encouraged me to continue. After the seventh album Yulun and I began working together and have ever since.

AAJ: How did you begin working together?

Yulun Wang: Back in 2002 I was in the midst of a career change, exploring many different possibilities in many different fields. But music, and especially jazz, has always been a huge passion of mine. I started cold calling a lot of different people, one of them being Seth, and it became pretty obvious that we had remarkably similar tastes.

We both have this incredible admiration and passion for the first generation AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] folks, and at the point when I spoke with Seth he already had Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, and Wadada Leo Smith on the label. These are people that I absolutely idolize for their originality and intellect.

We realized that in the beginning the basis of the label would be those AACM folks, but that we would expand to start recording many of the younger artists that work in a similar creative vein.

This was the early 2000s, and at that point, the recording industry was going through a pretty seismic change. Many well- established artists were not actively recording. Many of the major labels, and even some of the smaller labels, had essentially stopped recording many of these artists, but we knew that the creativity was there. These folks were all out there playing, still composing, still creating incredible music, and there was an opportunity to work with some people that we admired from afar for a very, very long time.

AAJ: What is your personal relationship to music and what influence does it have on the label?

SR: Yulun and I attended NYU at different times. I happen to have been in music school while starting the label. I didn't realize that it would become something that a decade plus later I would still be involved with. I left music school thinking I would just take a semester off and do this, and that it would give me an opportunity to work on my chops and become a better musician.

But it was one of those instances when you find you've made a commitment. We have strong feelings for the AACM and all of the artists we're involved with. I think once you take it this far and are involved at this level, with this responsibility, I found that I needed to make a choice. I chose to give it all of my attention and really fulfill a certain obligation I had taken by asking and being allowed to record and release these artists' music.

So I stopped being anything that I would consider a musician, even though I was attempting to learn how to play the [guitar]. As I spent more time with the musicians and speaking about the music, I think I realized essentially the differences, or the distance, between where someone like myself may have been and where they are.

I think any influence it had on the label was strictly about the process of finding one's own voice. That was really always a primary motivation for me. Being at school studying a jazz program, there was always a lot of focus on standards and looking at the repertoire. I have the deepest admiration for that and understand the utility of it, but my perspective of it was that it's always at the deficit of fostering one's own approach and one's own voice.

Once the label began it was a natural inclination to work with people who had a very original voice. One of the tenets of the label is finding original music. Primarily the musicians we work with are working in their own compositional systems and documenting their music.

YW: I played violin for 10 years, very much a classical music geek growing up, but somewhere along the way I grew to love jazz. The sole reason I went to NYU is because I had this romantic notion that I would go to college and be able to spend a lot of time going to the jazz clubs in Greenwich Village, which I actually did, and it became an important part of who I am.

AAJ: Is there a particular way your musical background influences what you want from the label?

YW: Back then the scene was still very much straight ahead, people playing standards, but there was a stirring of other things going on, other possibilities. Downtown jazz, the downtown scene was pretty strong then, and it showed that there was an opportunity to do something different. Our perception of what was possible for music, in terms of creating a personal, original voice was very, very important for us.

For the label, really we're looking for originality. Not just the ability to play, not just the ability to play the standards, not necessarily being a composer of good sounding tunes, but we're looking for the people that are really reaching for something completely different. You'll find that whether it's in the sound of their instrument, the sound of the way they play, or their compositional sense, we tend to work with people who are very much originals.

AAJ: How do you find artists? How do you network, how do you know who you want to record for the label?

SR: In the beginning our shared appreciation for the AACM really influenced the artists we recorded from the obvious standpoint of documenting a lot of people in the AACM. The first four recordings were Threadgill, Roscoe, Wadada, and then the Art Ensemble that Yulun and I did together, but in between that there was a duo of Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton. We have since worked with Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, and Leroy Jenkins, all active members of the early AACM.

So when your first six recordings out of seven are essentially all AACM artists and that happens in a two or three year period, it's not a sheer coincidence. That really dictated a lot of not just our interests, but essentially the statement that we wanted to make.

We saw the opportunity to set a different example, and celebrate people who were extremely prominent up through the '80s. There had just been a sort of cultural shift in the jazz landscape, and I think as a result of that, it became very natural for us to become aligned with people who were sort of mentoring with [the AACM], such as Vijay Iyer.

YW: Being on the scene we got to listen much more intently to who was really bringing something original, who really could play, and slowly we started to figure it out.

Part of it was watching who the folks already on the label were playing with, and also paying attention to whether these folks could make that next step to becoming leaders of their own bands. We signed guitarist Liberty Ellman, who is a member of Henry Threadgill's Zooid. Rudresh Mahanthappa came on board because he and Vijay Iyer played in each other's quartets. Later we signed Steve Lehman, who was relatively young at the time. He had studied with both Anthony Braxton and Jackie McLean and he really brought both a traditional sense as well as a more contemporary or avant-garde sense of the music.

We were also seeking out people that we just loved. We started a relationship with the guitarist Marc Ribot, and he's someone we feel has an incredibly original voice on his instrument. We worked with the guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer, one of my personal favorites going back to the Knitting Factory days, a true original on his instrument.

It slowly built from there, all quite organic, always keeping an ear out, talking to the musicians, getting a sense from them of who we should be listening to. That carried us for the first six or seven years of our existence. Somewhere along the way we became well known. We developed a reputation in the industry for doing compelling releases. I think musicians picked up on that, and we developed a reputation among musicians for being a fair label, a label that puts a lot of effort into what we do.

We only put out five recordings a year, each release is important to us, and we work each release super hard. We give every release a month or two space around it so we can work the press, so that we can make sure the music actually gets heard. We handle everything, from going out and scouting the musicians, developing a relationship, signing them to the label, doing recordings, writing press releases, getting them distributed and to the stores. We handle every aspect of the business, and we handle each aspect of the business very seriously.

I think the musicians out there know we're serious, know we're doing a good job, and it came to a point where musicians would just reach out to us.

SR: I think that frames it, the first six or seven years are to a certain extent the AACM and the musicians the AACM had. The period since then, in the way that it unfolded, has been more with associates of Steve Coleman. Steve's music and philosophy has really had a profound influence on a whole generation of jazz musicians. He has attracted some great young forward-looking musicians who have sought him out to challenge themselves to elevate their own level of musicianship.

Our relationship with Steve has put us in contact with young musicians that we can look and say, "okay, you are probably walking down that same path we're walking down." As a result of that, we started working with pianist David Virelles, trumpet player Jonathan Finlayson, vocalist Jen Shyu, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey.

AAJ: Being based in New York City, is there a geographic limitation on the artists you find?

YW: Most of the artists we work with are New York based. When we do a release we like to see the music live first, see it lived in for a little while before it's recorded. We don't need to travel to check someone out because New York is packed with incredible musicians.

AAJ: Is there a particular conception of jazz Pi Recordings artists might conform to?

SR: I think the conception of jazz that most of our artists would conform to would be people creating their own language on their instrument, writing their own music with their own language. By that I mean, for instance, Steve Lehman has been working with spectral harmony and he's probably one of the only people that have introduced spectral harmony to jazz.

Or Hafez Modirzadeh, using Persian modes and alternate tunings and creating his own language around that, or someone like Henry Threadgill who has essentially abandoned Western harmony to create his own approach to harmony. It's not so much bound by music theory that anyone would be learning in school or anyone that's studying the classic repertoire would be practicing.

Then after that there really are those people that have a unique sound on their instrument and I think everyone on the label is identifiable on their instrument. It's not just a sound, but it's really an approach. I'm not sure there's anyone out there playing piano the way Vijay plays piano, I know no one's playing saxophone the way Steve Coleman plays saxophone. The same can be said for Amir El Saffar, the notes in between the notes he's finding on the trumpet, and the fingerings he's developed to find those notes, no one else is working with.

YW: We're not looking for any specific things. When we hear it, we know that it's good for the label. We're not trying to put a box around it. I do think that some of the words that Seth and I use a lot when debating whether or not to record someone is, "is this important?"

We feel like the market is completely awash with way too many recordings. We stand out by focusing on things that we think are important, that ten years from now people will say "wow, that's the first time someone did that" or "you want to hear something really influential." That often enters our discussion of what projects we want to take on

AAJ: Are you strictly a jazz label?

YW: No, we're not strictly a jazz label. I think that jazz is the primary basis for everything we do, particularly improvisation, which is obviously a very important component to the label. We self-identify as jazz, but in this day and age everything is blurred anyway. Great music is blurring through all boundaries, and we're right there, as long as the music is great.

SR: I know if you asked Henry Threadgill what music he was writing, he'd have his music in the world section. Not that anyone necessarily hears Henry's music and has an association with typical world music, but from Henry's perspective he's drawing from all cultures, and he's not really limited to the traditional roots that we would associate with jazz. So I'm not sure that Henry or any of the AACM guys consider themselves "jazz" artists, I think they consider themselves composers of music

AAJ: What is the role and utility of intellectualization and scholarship in jazz and how is it reflected in the label?

SR: I don't know if that's something we ever consciously pursued or discussed except to observe that a number of people on the label are working in academia, I think relatively speaking it's a small number of our artists: Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer, George Lewis, Amir El Saffar, Hafez Modirzadeh, Tyshawn Sorey...

YW: Well, if you go down the line Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, Roscoe [are involved with academia]. I think part of it is because of the emphasis we have on composition, and advanced compositional form. Many of these people end up getting hired by academic institutions because they are compelling composers.

SR: There may be an understanding that to change a bit of the culture it may be more effective to do it from the inside out, and the people we've named are people who have really put a focus on composition. Enough so that they can get in there and sit side-by-side with whomever they have at Columbia, and introduce their ideas and their compositions.

They can begin to change the perception of jazz as something more than a set of chord changes, with a head on it, and then just improvising. It really is writing pieces of music that are as complex as any piece of classical music out there.

YW: These are guys who feel that the music they are composing and creating is every bit the equal of music that is celebrated in contemporary classical music. Now they're getting the opportunity to step up and take those positions and getting the recognition that they can do it as well, and I think this is important.

I think there's still a sense among many people out there that jazz is a folkloric music, and it's a lot more than that, you can't pigeonhole jazz in any way anymore.

SR: Braxton has a term that the traditional jazz audience is looking for the "sweating brow," the sweating musician, the person who's up there, grinding it out, creating on the spot, and it's incredible inspiration that's coming to them, but that's really not the case. There are people that we work with that spend a lot of time and put a lot of thought into creating something, and it's not just this amazing feat that happens before your eyes. There's really a lot of backstory and intellect, and work that goes into not just learning to play your instruments, but building these pieces and learning how to create music.

AAJ: How does Pi Recordings compare to other labels?

YW: We only put out 5 releases a year, and despite that, I think we get lots of recognition from jazz fans, critics, and artists. We are one of the more significant players in the business. We essentially made a statement that we're going to keep this as a boutique label. Each of our releases is equally important, and not only do we feel it's important, we are going to make sure that everybody else thinks it's important as well. It's a part of our job to convince people that what we're putting out is worthwhile. We focus on a select number of releases and things that we feel are of the highest quality

SR: In this day and age, there is no shortage of people with the opportunity to release music, if for no other reason than it's not as expensive to record it and the whole concept of distribution has changed. There's no shortage of music out there or who are willing labels to release it.

The decade plus since we've been doing this it feels like the definition of jazz or the conversation around jazz has moved much closer to where we're coming from. I feel like we've informed that change. I think when we first started, a lot of our musicians were labeled as avant-garde, but we always avoided that term. Now, several of the artists associated with the label are either in the Downbeat critic's poll for their instrument, they're on the cover of Downbeat, they're being awarded musician of the year, composer of the year, and they're represented domestically and internationally by agents.

I think the vision of jazz is much different in 2013 than it was in 2001, and it's much more aligned with what we've been doing. I think the sound that we've committed to documenting is much more pervasive and more representative of what is happening now.

Art Ensemble of Chicago—The Meeting (2003)

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago was born out of the AACM in the 1960s and has gone through several iterations since it's conception. The group's 2003 release The Meeting features Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman playing myriad flutes, reeds, saxophones, recorders, and percussion instruments. They are joined by Malachi Favors Maghostut on bass and percussion, and Famoudou Don Moye playing drum set and a variety of ethnic drums.

The Meeting nicely illustrates the creativity, originality, and impact of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and of the AACM in general. The album includes seven tracks, one composed by Jarman, one by Maghostut, two by Mitchell, and three by the AEC as a group. Between the various composers, the instrumentation, and the level of creativity on The Meeting is astoundingly diverse.

The opening track, Jarman's "Hail We Now Sing Joy," is a relatively straightforward swinging jazz tune. It features prominent, but uncredited vocals, saxophone solos, and a fairly conventional rhythm section.

Roscoe Mitchell's "Tech Ritter and the Megabytes" is similar in that there is a clearly defined, albeit melodically unusual, theme and the familiar format for solos. The tune is structured over a very hip bass recorder ostinato that fits the unconventional orchestration.

"Wind and Drum" presents a contrasting structural aesthetic. The piece begins with several minutes of percussive chimes before segueing to long, sustained melodies played on wooden flutes. These sections, combined with minimal percussive accompaniment are evocative of many varieties of world music, especially that associated with some Native American traditions.

Maghostut's "It's The Sign of the Times" is similarly composed, though on a grand scale. Featuring unaccompanied solos by each player, the tune evolves through various percussive sections, drum solos, and timbral soundscapes before coalescing into a gradually progression of melodic themes.

In general, The Meeting is highly melodic with fascinating percussion work, and structurally interesting compositions.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements—Harvesting Semblances and Affinities (2010)

Steve Coleman and the musicians that make up Five Elements are renowned on the jazz scene for their distinctive voice. Harvesting Semblances and Affinities, from 2010, features Coleman on alto sax, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, trombonist Tim Albright and vocalist Jen Shyu as the front line. They are supported by bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, with drummer Marcus Gilmore and percussionist Ramon Garcia Perez on "Flos Ut Rosa Floruit." All of the tracks are Coleman compositions except for "Flos Ut Rosa Floruit" by Danish composer Per Nørgård.

The album opens with "Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)," a wall of sound that introduces us to the flavor of the record. Pulsing horn blasts back up Shyu's vocalizations as the rhythm section provides a driving pulse, yet with an elusive metrical structure. The effect and energy of the tune is revisited in the kindred spirit and reprise "Attila 04 (Closing Ritual)."

"Clouds" is a jazz ballad, evocative of Flora Purim's work on Chick Corea's Return to Forever, based on the shifting patterns of clouds. The vaguely Latin feel is subject to odd, yet subtle, metric shifts. The vocal melody is quite attractive, and is intersected by countering and complementary movements from the horns.

"Flos Ut Rosa Floruit" fits nicely into this collection. The texture of the orchestration produces a beautiful choral effect, in which the various interacting instrumental voices create a lush harmonic tapestry.

While all of the performers are of the highest caliber, Tyshawn Sorey and especially Jen Shyu stand out. Sorey handles the oddities of meter with aplomb, and Shyu's vocal delivery and approach turn her voice into a unique fourth member of the horn section.

Amir ElSaffar— Alchemy (2013)

Amir ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American trumpeter and composer, as well as maqam singer and santoor player, who brings a unique sound and aesthetic to the contemporary jazz scene. The 2013 release Alchemy showcases ElSaffar's prowess as a player, composer, and bandleader. He is joined by Ole Mathisen on tenor saxophone, and a rhythm section of pianist John Escreet, bassist Francois Moutin, and drummer Dan Weiss.

Alchemy is ten original compositions, with the complete three- track Ishtarum Suite and four selections from the Alchemy Suite. The suites do have an appealing continuity and development, lending a symphonic feel to the album.

The first track of the Ishtarum Suite, "Ishtarum," begins with a statement of the theme by the horn and extended solos over a gradually building texture. ElSaffar and Escreet both take ear-catching solos before the horns return everyone to the theme.

The second movement, "Nid Qablitum," begins a new development from the beginning, with quick percussion rolls and a motivic piano solo. The highlights of this piece are Mathisen's solo and the tone of the piano, at times evoking the sound of splashing water.

The Ishtarum Suite concludes with "Embubum—Ishtarum— Pitum," a track with significant flavors of Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage."

Similarly, the melody for "Quartal" bears a resemblance to Coltrane's "Impressions," though still maintaining ElSaffar's unique voice. This is actually one of the strengths of the album. While at times it evokes Hancock, Coltrane, and the orchestral tradition, it always sounds original.

"Balad" is one example of a composition that sounds only like ElSaffar. A melody of long, sustained tones floats above the sparse, drifting piano and bass accompaniment. The horns are playing what sounds like a microtonal harmonization, which combined with the narrow melodic range, give it an eerie and distinct sound.

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd— Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project (2013)

Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd's Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project is deeply affecting musically and socially. The album is lyrically focused, giving the spotlight to poet, vocalist, and military veterans Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill.

The onus of the project is to reflect upon the experience of post-9/11 veterans of color through the exploration of their dreams. The often spectacular poetry is derived from veterans' accounts of their dreams as given in interviews beginning in late 2009. Decaul and Hill's delivery is always powerful and significant.

The album is 17 tracks, with vocalists Pamela Z and Guillermo E. Brown, guitarist Liberty Ellman, celloist Okkyung Lee, and drummer Kassa Overall joining Iyer on piano, Ladd on synthesizer, and Decaul and Hill.

Musically, the album is atmospheric, characterized by electronics and Fender Rhodes effects that would be at home on a heavy metal or goth rock album. Some tracks bear a certain hip- hop influence, but the whole collection defies generalization or strict boundaries.

"Here" is a good example of the overall feel of the album. The track is dominated by Iyer's minimalistic, yet driving piano work, with cello lines and electronic sound effects fleshing out the background for the spoken-word poetry. "There Is A Man Slouching in the Stairway" and "Mess Hall" both feature operatic vocals from Pamela Z. "Shush" features almost a reprise of "Here," accentuating the chilling poetic delivery evoking images of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While there is fine playing on the album, especially from Iyer and Liberty Ellman, the instrumentalists excel in their role as understated ambassadors. The lyrics, their message, and the nature of the project take precedence over the need for superfluous shows of instrumental pyrotechnics. Fortunately, all of the players seem dedicated to this vision, resulting in an exceptional end result.

Steve Lehman Trio—Dialect Fluorescent (2012)

Steve Lehman's 2012 release Dialect Fluorescent, featuring Lehman on alto sax, Matt Brewer on bass, and drummer Damion Reid is an engaging recording consisting of five Lehman originals, and four tunes from the vernacular.

Entirely in trio format, the group takes a relatively conventional approach to the material, playing heads, soloing, and returning the theme to end the tunes. However, the originality of the band is readily apparent in their harmonic and rhythmic sonorities. The quality of the recording only enhances the product. The instruments are perfectly balanced, prominently showcased, and the effect is three excellent musicians applying their own voices to one grand communion.

The album opens with "Allocentric (Intro)," an unaccompanied sax solo in which Lehman's breathy tone and circular riffing hypnotizes. This segues into Lehman's tune "Allocentric," as an angular and dissonant melody sounds over a repeated bass riff and staggered drum punctuations. Despite the discord, the tune is remarkably grounded and memorable.

The trio's rendition of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's "Pure Imagination," of Willy Wonka fame, turns it into a grooving bop tune. Ried's work on the drum set is particularly impressive. Jackie McLean's "Mr. E" receives a similarly effective treatment.

"Fumba Rebel" starts with a bass solo crawling from Brewer's fingers before coalescing with Reid's rock- inspired drumming. Finally, Lehman's melodically sparse, but rhythmically penetrating theme enters the equation.

The trio is in fine form throughout, offering their unique take on the standards while treating the listener to an enticing sampling of Lehman's own compositions.

Rudresh Mahanthappa— Kinsmen (2008)

Alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa's 2008 release Kinsmen is one of the most successful attempts to combine Indian classical music with jazz on record. Mahanthappa manages to blend the complexities of jazz improvisation and harmony with South Indian improvisational approaches, instrumentation, and rhythms. The album features Carnatic (South Indian) classical music legend Kadri Gopalnath on alto sax, violinist A. Kanyakumari, guitarist Rez Abbasi, mridangam player Poovalur Sriji, bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer royal hartigan.

The album consists of ten compositions by Mahanthappa and Gopalnath. Of the ten, four are unaccompanied "alaps," or expositions of the melodic material and structure utilized for a piece of music. Abassi, de Rosa, Gopalnath and Kanyakumar each perform a brief alap.

The composition and arrangements for the group pieces are the most striking achievement of Kinsmen. "Ganesha" begins with a catchy alto sax riff, which is doubled by the guitar, and complemented and contrasted by counter themes in the second alto sax and violin. The soloists are given abundant space, only accompanied by the bass, mridangam, drums, and the pianistic comping of the guitar. The solo section ends with acrobatic dueling between the alto sax and violin, repeating each other's lines in a unique style of trading fours any fan of Indian classical music will recognize.

"Snake!" develops through a variety of musical styles, sounding heavily influenced by Indian folk music before taking on some of the darker and more dissonant tonalities of modern jazz. The altos and guitar solo before an ironic take on the caricatured "snake charmer" riff takes us to a reprisal of the initial theme.

Kinsmen is a unique blend of varying improvisational perspectives and complex compositional vision. The band is tight, the improvisation is inspired and the orchestration is beautifully realized.

Marc Ribot—Silent Movies (2010)

Silent Movies is a collection of predominantly solo guitar pieces by Marc Ribot. There is minimal input from soundscapes specialist Keefus Ciancia and one track featuring Marc Ribot using vibraphone overdubs to complement his guitar playing.

The album consists entirely of film music arranged for guitar. A number of the tracks appeared in films scored by Ribot, while others were imaginings for projects that were not brought to fruition.

All tracks are Ribot's compositions, with the exception of "Soul Le Ciel De Paris," by Hubert Giraud. The recording is remarkably well produced, bringing forth a depth and clarity often sorely missing from solo guitar recordings. The majority of the album features a clean steel-string guitar sound with a faint reverb effect.

"Delancey Waltz" stands out for the warm tone of the chordal accompaniment to the muted bass and shimmering melodies. Liberal use of hammer-ons and alternating bass give the tune a decided folk quality.

"Fat Man Blues" is a bit of an oddity in the context of this album, but it's a highlight. A simple, swinging shuffle pattern drives the momentum for Ribot's chordal and single line solos. It's even reminiscent of musical styling of the Doors.

"Bateau" is another shift in gears. A classically- influenced meditation, it communicates an appreciable sense of longing. A dry timbre in the chordal accompaniment contrasts spectacularly with the lush, rich bass notes and saturated, fluid melodies emanating from the guitar.

The overdriven effect of the ragtime-tinged "Radio" is yet another example of the breadth and variety of Silent Movies. Ribot's offering is a unique interpretation of the aural images inherent in film music and an exposition of the guitar itself.

Wadada Leo Smith & Anthony Braxton—Organic Resonance (2003)

Organic Resonance is a unique artifact in modern music. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and reed player Anthony Braxton are founding members of Chicago's seminal Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. These duo recordings show the compositional and improvisational singularity of these two musicians. Even the cover art, a detail from one of Ornette Coleman's paintings, provides a contextually relevant visual stimulus that buoys the overall effect.

Recorded live at Tonic in New York City, 2003, Organic Resonance showcases Braxton and Smith as composers, improvisers and aural explorers. Each musician penned two of the album's four compositions.

Structurally, they play with, over, around, and through each other, complementing each other with their distinct voices. The complete mastery of their respective instruments requires mention. The range of timbres produced and sounds evoked is expansive: whistles, squeaks, growls, percussive effects, timbres suggestive of strings and didgeridoos, and even an otherworldly "mothership" effect (Composition No. 315, at the 9:40 mark) find their way onto the recording.

Wadada Leo Smith's "Tawaf (Cycles 1-7)" starts the album off with a journey through numerous approaches to the music. It begins with exchanges of disjointed melodic fragments marked by explorations of tone and extreme trilling. After about three minutes, long, flowing melodies begin to materialize against slowly shifting drones. This finally gives way to a conclusion of frantic, virtuosic blowing, building upon the types of melodic ideas heard in the opening section.

Braxton's "Composition No. 314" continues in a similar, yet more open and relaxed manner. The timbral effects are extreme, from the above-mentioned effects, to an unexpected, almost orchestral texture, at times bordering on "Stravinsky-esque."

A historically significant recording, Organic Resonance also delivers value on repeated listenings, with the ear constantly refocusing and discovering further nuances.

Tyshawn Sorey—Oblique- 1 (2011) Composer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey's 2011 release Oblique-1 features Sorey alongside alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, guitarist Todd Neufeld, pianist John Escreet and bassist Chris Tordini. The album contains ten original compositions, all of which feature the entire quintet, with the exception of "Eighteen," an unaccompanied alto sax solo.

Sorey cites both Arnold Schoenberg and Karlheinz Stockhausen among his influences, and their impact is apparent in the music. Tone rows, or some variant used to achieve atonality, are used to great effect in "Eight" and "Thirty-Five." Sorey refers to other compositional devices such as "indeterminate harmonic progressions" that are audible structural elements throughout the album.

"Twenty," the opening track, initiates us to an angular theme interspersed amongst chaotic, yet composed, instrumental dialogue. The simultaneous improvisation includes sinuous guitar lines, relentless mono- chordal piano assaults, and pounding drums and bass. Things become more grounded as the alto sax begins to solo, with the rhythm section tightening appreciably.

"Twenty-four" is a laid back ballad of sorts, dominated by a drifting melody from Stillman. Against a backdrop of understated drums, bass, and long sustained piano chords, the melody veers from vaguely familiar into unexpected tonal territories.

"Fifteen" is exceptionally interesting compositionally, beginning with a hip ostinato line in the mid-range of the piano. This is then fleshed into various harmonizations with percussion support, before the tune enters into a loosely defined soundscape. Ultimately, a new theme and solo section is introduced spurred onward by incessant drum rolls and fills.

Oblique-1 is rewarding compositionally, improvisationally and aesthetically. Each tune is predicated on its own internal language, which the players masterfully adapt and exploit in their individual performances, bringing the compositions to life.

Henry Threadgill Zooid—This Brings Us To, Volume 1 (2009)

This Brings Us To, Volume 1 is the 2009 release of Henry Threadgill's Zooid. Flautist and alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill, guitarist Liberty Ellman, and trombone/tuba player Jose Davila front the band. Bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee make up the rhythm section.

There are six tracks, all Threadgill originals. The diverse manifestations of his musical conception and voice are immediately apparent. The players impress by adding their own sounds to this sonic amalgamation, yet remaining in their own defined sphere. Guitarist Liberty Ellman is particularly impactful throughout.

The opening track, "White Wednesday Off the Wall," is an apparently meter- less composition. It is coordinated, composed yet loosely defined. It borders on wandering exploration, but there is a strong enough underlying structure to hold it together. Ellman's guitar solo consists exclusively of chiming harmonics, and the odd note progressions that accompany such an approach. The timid whistle of a flute in the background, a groaning tuba, and sporadic percussive bells accompany Ellman's solo. "To Undertake My Corners Open" features a strikingly different compositional system and aesthetic. The instrumental tones are relatively conventional, yet the tune and arrangement are unique. Drums, bass, and a riffing guitar backup the horns before the tune segues into solos by Threadgill (alto sax), Ellman, and Threadgill again (flute). Each instrument carries a distinct thematic motive, drawing the composition together from corners far and wide.

"Sap" begins with an extended drum solo, showcasing Kavee's adeptness, before a repeating guitar riff, angular tuba line, running bass line, and spasmodic alto sax solo complete the picture. The solos by Threadgill and Ellman are again exceptional.

This Brings Us To, Volume 1 is an excellent display of musicianship, musical dexterity, and originality. Each musician is a necessary and apt contributor to the sonic world created within.

The Meeting

Tracks: Hail We Now Sing Joy; It's the Sign of the Times; Tech Ritter and the Megabytes; Wind and Drum; The Meeting; Amin Bidness; The Train To Io.

Personnel: Roscoe Mitchell: piccolo, flute, bass and great bass recorders, sopranino, soprano, alto, tenor and bass saxophone; percussion cage; Malachi Favors Maghostut: bass and percussion; Famoudou Don Moye: drums, African drums, congas and bongo drums; Joseph Jarman: wooden flutes, C flute, Eb flute, flute and bass flute, Eb sopranino clarinet, sopranino, alto and tenor saxophones, percussion, wooden stand drum, bells, gongs, table vibraphone and whistles.

Harvesting Semblances and Affinities

Tracks: Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual); Beba; Clouds; 060706- 2319 (Middle of Water); Flos Ut Rosa Floruit; Attila 04 (Closing Ritual); Vernal Equinox 040320-0149 (Initiation).

Personnel: Steve Coleman: alto saxophone; Jonathan Finlayson: trumpet; Tim Albright: trombone; Jen Shyu: vocals; Thomas Morgan: bass; Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Marcus Gilmore: drums (5); Ramon Garcia Perez: percussion (5).


Tracks: Ishtarum; Nid Qablitum; Embubum—Ishtarum—Pitum; 12 Cycles; Quartal; Balad; Five Phases; Athar Kurd; Miniature #1; Ending Piece.

Personnel: Amir ElSaffar: trumpet; Ole Mathisen: tenor saxophone; John Escreet: piano; Francois Moutin: bass; Dan Weiss; drums.

Holding It Down: The Veterans' Dreams Project

Tracks: Here; Derelict Poetry; Capacity; Walking With the Duppy; There is a Man Slouching in the Stairway; My Fire; On Patrol; Dream of an Ex-Ranger; Name; Costume; Tormented Star of Morning; Patton; Shush; REM Killer; Requiem for an Insomniac; Dreams in Color; Mess Hall.

Personnel: Vijay Iyer: piano, Fender Rhodes; programming and live electronics; Mike Ladd: vocals and analog synthesizer; Maurice Decaul: vocals; Lynn Hill: vocals; Pamela Z: vocals with live processing; Guillermo E. Brown: vocals and effects; Liberty Ellman: guitar; Okkyung Lee: cello; Kassa Overall: drums.

Dialect Fluorescent

Tracks: Allocentric (Intro); Allocentric; Moment's Notice; Foster Brothers; Jeannine; Alloy; Pure Imagination; Fumba Rebel; Mr. E.

Personnel: Steve Lehman: alto saxophone; Matt Brewer: bass; Damion Reid: drum set.


Tracks: Introspection; Ganesha; Rez-Alap; Longing; Snake!; Carlo-Alap; Kalyani; Kadri- Alap; Kanya-Alap; Convergence (Kinsmen)

Personnel: Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto saxophone; Kadri Gopalnath: alto saxophone; A. Kanyakumari: violin; Rez Abassi: guitar; Poovalur Sriji; mridangam: Carlo de Rosa: bass; Royal Hartigan: drums.

Silent Movies

Tracks: Variation 1; Delancey Waltz; Flicker; Empty; Natalia in Eb Major; Solaris; Requiem for a Revolution; Fat Man Blues; Bateau; Radio; Postcard from N.Y.; The Kid; Sous Le Ciel De Paris.

Personnel: Marc Ribot: guitar and vibraphone (12); Keefus Ciancia: soundscapes (1, 3, 7, 11, 13).

Organic Resonance

Tracks: Tawaf (Cycles 1—7); Composition No. 314; Composition No. 315; A Celestial Bow, Stone Rivers and Silver Stars Overlayed in Red.

Personnel: Wadada Leo Smith: trumpet; Anthony Braxton: reeds.


Tracks: Twenty; Eight; Thirty-Five; Eighteen; Forty; Twenty-Four; Seventeen; Twenty-Five; Fifteen; Thirty- Six.

Personnel: Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Loren Stillman: alto saxophone; Todd Neufeld: electric and acoustic guitar; John Escreet: piano, Fender Rhodes, and Wurlitzer piano; Chris Tordini: bass.

This Brings Us To, Volume 1

Tracks: White Wednesday Off the Wall; To Undertake My Corners Open; Chairmaster; After Some Time; Sap; Mirror Mirror the Verb.

Personnel: Henry Threadgill: flute and alto saxophone; Liberty Ellman: guitar; Jose Davila: trombone and tuba; Stomu Takeishi: bass guitar; Elliot Humberto Kavee: drums.


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