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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.
I love jazz because it mixes intellect and emotion in a very spontaneous way.
I was first exposed to jazz by liberating a Coltrane and a Pharoah Sanders record from a friend in NYC and listening to them over and over until I got it.
My advice to new listeners is you have to take the time to listen to some jazz tunes a number of times until it starts to make sense.