Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

In order to maximize space in their homes, hoarders of large numbers of CDs like to discard their plastic jewel cases and replace them with flexible gatefold sleeves. Do this with a Thirsty Ear Blue Series disc, however, and you dispense with its most unique feature.

All jewel cases have a narrow, rectangular strip on the left side, either black and vertically textured or clear and smooth, that connects the inner tray to the back and front covers. On a Thirsty Ear Blue Series item, this strip is a beautiful, translucent shade of blue. Stack the Blue Series cases in a staggered pile, and what you get is a sleek structure with Art Deco overtones—not something one would toss into the recycling bin.

Each Blue Series album is self-contained, but together these discs form a narrative of sorts, a charged commentary on the shape of jazz to come. One wouldn’t necessarily expect such things from Thirsty Ear, long a bastion of post-punk, industrial, and other hard-to-define genres of the underground rock world. But thanks to avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp, the curator and artistic director of the Blue Series, Thirsty Ear has become one of the most innovative jazz labels of our day. And thanks to the cutting-edge design work of Cynthia Fetty, the series has a consistent visual profile, an ideal complement to the provocative sounds on offer. Thirsty Ear label head Peter Gordon describes the look as “an overlay, a blanket over the audio.”

Shipp, 43, came on board at Gordon’s invitation in 1999, even though he had only recently announced his retirement. He had felt “wasted as a recording artist,” as he wrote in the liner notes to his 2003 Blue Series album, Equilibrium. Gordon’s offer gave Shipp the impetus to begin again, with a fresh perspective. “Curating a series is bigger than just putting out an album,” he says. “I accepted, because I would get to develop a new role for myself.”

Shipp’s “old” role was that of a self-described “classical avant-garde player.” By “classical” we can take Shipp to mean rooted in the tradition, for lack of a better word, of ’60s and ’70s free jazz. Shipp’s free playing is a world of dense atonal clusters and severe, expressionist landscapes, far outside the boundaries of tempo, form, and standard harmony. When playing live with longtime colleagues like altoist Rob Brown and violinist Mat Maneri, Shipp may go on for nearly an hour without so much as a break for applause. These summits, with their knotted, spiraling streams of invention, are the antithesis of a polite club set. Listeners are free to follow the players’ every move, or lose themselves in a flow of moods, delighting in the absence of pre-meditation. (Shipp’s “classical” concept is particularly well documented on the hatOLOGY label.)

While the Blue Series hasn’t posited a break from the “classical” avant-garde, it has facilitated projects that are far more crafted and deliberate than the typical free-jazz “blowing session.” As Peter Gordon explains, “We didn’t want a two-track documentation of ‘the moment.’ The free scene was already well represented that way. We wanted something broader—a concept, a point of view.” Together, Gordon and Shipp envisioned an “interdisciplinary” approach for the Blue Series. “We wanted to mediate and bring different types of people together,” says Gordon.

The first few entries, however, were a forum for Shipp and his inner circle, many closely associated with the Vision Festival, an avant-jazz convergence held every spring on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Shipp’s own Pastoral Composure was first, followed by the more expansive New Orbit. Bassist William Parker, a veteran of Cecil Taylor‘s bands and a colleague of Shipp’s from the David S. Ware Quartet, debuted on the Blue Series with Painter’s Spring. Mat Maneri’s Blue Decco and trumpeter Roy Campbell‘s It’s Krunch Time carried the series forward, in an adventurous but still largely acoustic vein.

Then the circle began to expand. Pianist Craig Taborn, who had appeared on Blue Decco, offered the captivating trio album Light Made Lighter. He also appeared on The Shell Game, an electronically infused trio epic in four parts by Tim Berne, the well-established composer and alto saxophonist.

DJ culture and sampling soon began to broaden the Blue Series aesthetic. The British duo Spring Heel Jack (John Coxon and Ashley Wales), already on Thirsty Ear’s main roster, joined the Blue Series with Masses, filtering the music of Shipp, William Parker, and other live improvisers through a skein of experimental electronica. An even larger number of players, including J Spaceman of Spiritualized, appeared on Spring Heel Jack’s next release, Amassed. Shipp’s experience with Spring Heel Jack prompted a turn toward beats and electronica on his own Nu Bop and Equilibrium albums, and laid the groundwork for an ambitious collaboration with the hip-hop group Antipop Consortium. Along the way, Guillermo E. Brown, David S. Ware’s drummer, issued a powerful electronica statement of his own, Soul at the Hands of the Machine.

The Blue Series took another bold turn when DJ Spooky, pioneer of the “illbient” school of electronica, recruited Brown, Shipp, Parker, and free-jazz icon Joe McPhee for Optometry, which was soon followed by the remix album Dubtometry. But the acoustic (or at least non-beat-related) branch of the Blue Series continued to grow as well, with albums like Parker’s Raining on the Moon and Maneri’s Sustain.

This was new territory for jazz, for music as a whole, and especially for Thirsty Ear Recordings, Inc. The label had a solid reputation as a purveyor of “out rock,” recording and/or distributing acts like Adrian Belew, Brian Eno, Exene Cervenka, Bush Tetras, Jah Wobble, Teenage Fan Club, Einstürzende Neubauten, and Pere Ubu. Jazz had a fan in Peter Gordon, but for a number of compelling reasons, Thirsty Ear was reluctant to go down that road. “We didn’t have any real depth of knowledge or understanding,” Gordon asserts. “Until we had a handle on how to approach the music, there was no reason to clutter the market with more jazz releases.”

The man who unwittingly gave Thirsty Ear that handle was anything but a jazz musician. He was Henry Rollins, formerly of Black Flag, one of punk rock‘s foundational bands. Rollins has pursued parallel paths over the years: fronting the Rollins Band, running his own labels, and making spoken-word appearances. In the early ’90s, after reading in a magazine that Rollins was an avant-garde jazz fan, Shipp sent the hulking, tattooed, square-jawed singer a demo. Rollins liked what he heard, and he reissued Shipp’s first album, Circular Temple, on Infinite Zero, a label he ran with noted alt-rock and hip-hop producer Rick Rubin. When Rollins launched his 2.13.61 label (named for his own birth date), he released several new albums by Shipp, including Critical Mass and Flow of X.

It just so happened that Thirsty Ear was handling distribution for 2.13.61. “We were introduced to the power of jazz through a punk rocker’s eyes,” marvels Gordon. As time went by and Rollins’s label became inactive, Gordon invited Shipp to record for Thirsty Ear proper. The result was DNA, a muscular duo outing with William Parker. It was to have been Shipp’s last album, but the Blue Series changed all that.

Gordon had long been aware of a connection between alt-rock and free jazz. As he explains it, “The avant-garde scene had a certain energy and intensity, a take-no-prisoners approach that early punk had as well. The languages were very different, but the attitude was similar.” Indeed, it isn’t rare to run across a free-jazz devotee with a hidden passion for the harshest rock-n-roll. This aesthetic link made a substantial difference in bringing music like Shipp’s to a wider public. As Phil Freeman writes in New York Is Now!: The New Wave of Free Jazz (Telegraph, 2001), “The fact that it’s no longer in any way shocking to see a free jazz album reviewed in CMJ, Alternative Press, or Magnet is a tribute to the change in public perception created by Shipp’s and Rollins’ efforts.”

Shipp places the punk/jazz nexus in the context of the ’90s. “Now the whole thing has moved into the beat world, the abstract hip-hop world,” he notes. “It’s really in the air, it’s not just us. And I don’t see it as just a trend, because the connection between the musics is real.” That said, Shipp makes no secret of his early skepticism toward the Spring Heel Jack and Antipop Consortium projects. He had met “Beans,” of Antipop, while the rapper was employed at Other Music, an alternative record store in Manhattan’s East Village. Beans was keen on collaborating, but as Shipp candidly recalls, “I thought he was completely full of shit.” Shipp came around, however, and music took a bold evolutionary step forward. Hip-hop’s emphasis on production as an art seemed right in line with the Blue Series mandate. And an album like Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp, with its enticing matrix of beats, rhymes, and improvisation, perfectly embodied Shipp’s desire to work with new forms and reach new listeners, not simply sell more records.

More and more, the Blue Series is guided by a simple yet profound insight: that today’s listener does not proclaim allegiance to any one genre of music. It’s fitting, then, that the Blue Series is not only bringing more listeners to jazz, but also bringing jazz listeners to hip-hop and its allied sub-genres. This year alone will see a new William Parker trio record, a Spring Heel Jack live record, a Shipp collaboration with the rapper El-P, a live Vision Festival document, and a David S. Ware plus strings disc. In addition, The GoodandEvil Sessions will launch the Blue Series Continuum, a beyond-jazz offshoot focusing on collaborative, leaderless projects. A brainchild of the famed production team GoodandEvil, this album is similar in premise to the Spring Heel Jack projects, but a good deal more accessible.

“We put the gun to our head each time we release an album,” Peter Gordon remarks. “We try to make sure we’re not repeating ourselves, that we’re saying something new.”

From Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels
by David R. Adler
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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