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.
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