Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels

Trombonist Jim Staley has played an important role in the musical life of New York City for decades now, as a daring and imaginative performer with a virtuosic command of his instrument and as the owner and operator of Roulette, one of the city’s most important performance spaces, which recently celebrated its 20th anniverary. Staley’s cozy TriBeCa loft has been the scene for countless performances of new music — more than 1000 concerts since 1978. According to Staley’s mission statement, “Roulette’s original and ongoing purpose has been to provide opportunities for innovative composers, musicians and interdisciplinary collaborators to present their work in accessible, appropriate and professional concert productions. The organization is committed to supporting work by young and emerging artists as well as by established innovators.”

But Staley was not satisfied with reaching only New Yorkers. In 1991 he founded the Einstein record label to provide listeners around the world the opportunity to hear some of the artistry that has found a home at Roulette. The label seeks to produce, distribute and promote its adventurous artists worldwide in the same way that Roulette has served the New York audience.

The breadth of the Einstein catalog is immediately apparent in its two compilations of live performances at Roulette, A Confederacy of Dances, Vols. 1 & 2. John Zorn, Bill Frisell, David Weinstein, Christian Marclay, Zeena Parkins, Wadada Leo Smith and others can be heard on the first volume, while the second includes Jerome Cooper, Earl Howard, Denman Maroney, Davey Williams & LaDonna Smith, Irene Schweitzer and still others. The two volumes provide a panoramic view of Downtown musical activity.

Staley has released three albums of his own music on Einstein. The first, Don Giovanni, is a Fred Frith-produced montage of structured free improvisation featuring Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, Davey Williams and Tenko. Mumbo Jumbo is a slightly edited version of an important early document from the Downtown scene, a two LP set that featured four different improvising trios centering around Staley and including Zorn, Frisell, Mori, Shelly Hirsch, Elliott Sharp, Wayne Horvitz and Samm Bennett. And Northern Dancer, Staley’s latest release, finds him again in the company of Zorn, Parkins, Mori, Sharp and Williams.

The music of the late composer/pianist Michael Kowalski, a pioneer in the field of applying artificial intelligence computer programming to composition, is collected on Gringo Blaster. Other recordings on Einstein highlight composers from points beyond New York. Temporal Details, by San Diego-based composer/performer John Fonville, is a collection of virtuoso works for flute by Ben Johnston, Brian Ferneyhough, Fonville himself and others. Fonville also shows up on Intersections and Detours by the Tone Road Ramblers, a West Coast group somewhat analogous to New York’s Bang on a Can All-Stars. And Rambler trumpeter Ray Sasaki performs the music of fellow Rambler Morgan Powell on the album The Beastly Beatitudes.

From Off the Record! A Hyper-History of American Independent New Music Record Labels
by Steve Smith
© 1999 NewMusicBox