20-year-old Pi records chart a course from the past to the future
By Philip FreemanIJune 28, 2021
Pi Recordings is one of the most respected jazz labels, regularly featuring innovative and inspiring works from veterans like Henry Threadgill, Art Ensemble of Chicago and Wadada Leo Smith, as well as modern masters like Tyshawn Sorey and Vijay Iyer, and up to ‘to aspiring creators like saxophonist Anna Webber. The label’s catalog is tightly organized – less than 100 releases in two decades – but conceptually unified. Pi broadcasts rigorous and innovative music that pushes the boundaries of jazz while honoring its history.
Seth Rosner started the label in 2001 while working at the famous Knitting Factory in New York. His first two outings were by Threadgill; one bid farewell to the 1990s saxophonist-songwriter’s band Make A Move, while the other introduced Zooid to the world. Next come the records of Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory, Smith’s Golden Quartet and Fieldwork, a trio conducted by Iyer. Soon after, Rosner got a cold call from Yulun Wang, a former financial industry professional who was looking to do something a little more fulfilling.
âI’ve always been a huge fan of jazz and was very impressed with Seth’s first five releases,â Wang said at a Google meeting in mid-March. “In 2001, seeing musicians of this caliber appear on a label I knew nothing about was something of a surprise.”
Their partnership has lasted and grown ever since – they are the only Pi employees.
At 20 years old this year, Pi is one of the labels most invested in the current documentation of the work of eminent AACM artists. In addition to those mentioned above, Pi has worked with George Lewis, Fred Anderson, and Muhal Richard Abrams. Rosner said, âJust to put it in the simplest terms, a bunch of African American guys on the south side of Chicago coming out and taking over Europe and fighting for themselves and doing it. Forget about the fact that it’s cutting edgeâ¦ if you look at the arc of that, and what these guys have accomplished, it’s amazing.
Pi is also a label with a list filled with award winners – Threadgill has a Pulitzer; he and Mitchell are both NEA Jazz Masters; Iyer, saxophonist Steve Coleman and Sorey are MacArthur Fellows – whose posts consistently top the polls. Its founders see this as a reflection on their artists, not on themselves. As the awards poured in year after year, Rosner said, âIt started to sound like, ‘Hey, someone doesn’t necessarily recognize what we do, but what artists do,’ and we just happen to be. are the guys documenting this.
But Pi doesn’t just support the legends of avant-garde jazz; the label is engaged in a larger project of building a path from music’s past to its future.
âIt was something I had hoped for,â Rosner said. âAnd, as Yulun and I got together, we agreed that this would be the basis of Pi: to have these older musicians and still have a mentoring and nurturing relationship with younger musicians and let them grow through that and to be the next branch. “
Pi’s 2021 release list is consistent with this overall mission and its history to date. In addition to the albums of saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh (with Pi since 2010) and singer Jen Shyu (on board since 2011), the label is preparing a double CD of Webber; a six-CD set by pianist Matt Mitchell and project Snark Horse by drummer Kate Gentile performing one-bar compositions with a group of improvisers; a live album by Steve Coleman; and, to cap the year, Threadgill and Zooid’s latest album to be released in conjunction with his autobiography, written with Brent Hayes Edwards. Comics
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