Trust in the Label(s)
Look for most of these labels at good record stores, and there are still a few, especially Downtown Music Gallery in a basement space on Monroe Street in Chinatown. You can also order straight from the labels.
While the state of the music business means no one label can fill the gap left by the aesthetic and conceptual dissipation of Blue Note, Posi-Tone comes pretty damn close. The label’s direction is jazz of the soulful, funky, swinging, tough-minded variety, a contemporary extension of the legacies of Grant Green and Jimmy Smith. Their releases are consistently pleasurable—you’ll have a hard time taking their records out of rotation. From 2016, look for Spike Wilner’s Koan and anything featuring de facto house organist Brian Charette, especially Steve Fidyk’s Allied Forces, Ed Cherry’s Soul Tree, and Charette’s own Once & Future, one of the finest jazz releases of the year. (www.posi-tone.com)
A net label that produces CD releases limited to two hundred copies each, Unfathomless stands out from myriad niche labels across the internet. Their own niche is field recording-based ambient music. What set them apart are the label’s taste and the quality of its releases, which eschew the dubious intellectual pleasure of a faux-objective presentation and instead edit and manipulate sounds for maximum beauty and musical pleasure. Notable recent releases (which may still be available) include Flavien Gillié’s immersive document of Haren, Belgium, Nonante-neuf fragments harenois, and Moyens Fantômes, a gorgeous sonic assemblage from David Vélez and Bruno Duplant. (unfathomless.net)
Founded essentially by accident by composer David McIntyre and pianist R. Andrew Lee at University of Missouri – Kansas City, where they discovered a shared interest in minimalism. There, Lee played Tom Johnson’s An Hour for Piano at a recital. The performance left such a lingering impression that both set out to produce a series of recordings, inaugurated by the Johnson piece. Irritable Hedgehog has quickly become the place to go for the finest examples of scarcely known minimal and post-minimal piano music—Johnson, William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes, Dennis Johnson’s proto-minimalist, five-hour November, works from Wandelweiser composers Jürg Frey and Eva-Maria Houben—and electronic music from Dave Seidel, whose ~60 Hz is enthralling. Upcoming releases will include music from Terry Riley and an extended duration work for piano and electronics by Randy Gibson. And Lee’s recording of An Hour for Piano is still the only one that clocks in at exactly one hour. (irritablehedgehog.com)
A star-power new music label, around since 2003, that has embraced digital media, especially digital music libraries and streaming services, with an optimistic view that digital will eventually lead to fair returns for composers and musicians. They can take credit for recording some of the finest new music in some of the most beautiful performances, including the stunning debut from Chicago ensemble a.pe.ri.od.ic, more or less, with pieces by Jürg Frey; Claire Chase’s tremendous solo flute album, Density; Garden of Diverging Paths, an excellent recording by the Mivos String Quartet; the hilarious and unsettling song cycle RE: you, by Robert Honstein; and even the beautiful collection Cranford: Consort Music for 4, 5 & 6 Viols, from the early music group Le Strange Viols. Consider this purely random cherry picking, because there is nothing I’ve heard from the label that is not terrific. (newfocusrecordings.com)
Already Dead Tapes & Records
Founded in 2009 by Joshua Tabbia and Sean Hartman, and currently run out of rooms in Brooklyn, Chicago, and Kalamazoo, Already Dead has produced an impressive catalogue in terms of both quality and quantity—213 cassettes as of this writing. While they also market vinyl, books, and VHS tapes, the meat is the music on limited-edition cassettes, a truly eclectic and well-judged catalogue that includes the crunchy, energetic punk of Anybody But The Cops, sweet ambient music by talk midway, and the unique and delightful hip hop stylings of Darko the Super. Keep an eye on their growing catalogue numbers; at each new centennial, a limited edition compilation cassette contains a bonus golden ticket, which allows for free downloads of the previous 100 releases. (alreadydeadtapes.com)
There are numerous, quasi-mysterious net labels, web pages that collect music packaged in files with track numbers, an image, maybe a pdf one-sheet. The sites imply that the artists are well-established, even though you’re most likely unfamiliar with them, and the poker-faced presentation reveals little. But the music is free, so you download it, and end up with surprising and often wonderful things to listen to, like Darren McClure’s field recordings from Japan, Togari summerscapes, Bruno Duplant’s soundscape (You are here) Somewhere, and Cloud scissors/4 performers, a haunting live performance of avant-garde music from Lo Wei. (impulsivehabitat.com)
The elder statesman on this list. Tom Steenland’s one-man label has been releasing music and video since the early 1990s, when he set out to remaster and reissue two classic works from electronic composer Tod Dockstader, Quatermass and Apocalypse. A non-profit, Starkland’s pace and output are slow and small compared to other labels on this list, but Steenland works in close collaboration with composers and performers, and everything he produces leaves the impression of being exactly what the artists wanted. Along with exceptional quality, the music on Starkland often makes for an out of the ordinary experience. So far in 2016, the label has put out On the Nature of Thingness, a quietly gorgeous and absorbing CD of new music from Phyllis Chen and Nathan Davis played by the International Contemporary Ensemble, and the eponymous debut from the Instruments of Happiness electric guitar quartet, which fulfills all the open promises between the meeting of post-minimalism and art rock. Just out is a wonderful new CD from accordionist Guy Klucevsek, Teetering on the Verge of Normalcy, and coming in November will be From the Archives, a set of compositions by Dockstader discovered only after his death in 2015, never before heard and immediately important. (starkland.com)
A Wave Press
A brand new label founded by Casey Anderson, one that all started with radios. Specifically, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MOCA) donated sixty portable radios, left over from a Michael Pisaro performance, to Anderson, who created the piece possible dust for them. That led to other works for radios, and then the desire to record them. RADIOS is thus the first A Wave Press release, along with catalogue number 2, Scott Cazan’s long form electro-acoustic work Ingress. Anderson’s recording is a set of engrossing collages of audio from AM radio, including ads, news from southern California, and self-serious discussions of genetic engineering in Atlantis captured off of the coast-to-coast show. Ingress is a thirty-seven minute slow wave, built out of gradual pulsations, and is completely mesmerizing. (awavepress.com)
Punches far, far above its weight across all styles and genres. Holder of one of only two jazz recordings to have earned a Pulitzer Prize for its composer, Henry Threadgill’s 2015 double album In for a Penny, In for a Pound. The musicians on Pi, along with those who have recorded for the label, are the core cadre at the cutting edge of contemporary jazz: Threadgill, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey, Steve Lehman, Steve Coleman, Amir ElSaffar, Liberty Ellman, Hafez Modirzadeh. What makes Pi especially important is the support and trust they have for their musicians, which makes it possible for Threadgill’s band Zooid to spend the years required to master his complex concept, for Lehman to move restlessly from spectral harmonies to electronics to this year’s cosmopolitan, tough-as-nails jazz/hip hop album Sélébéyone, and for Sorey to present his unique and accomplished modern compositional style, heard in depth on The Inner Spectrum of Variables. Out later this year are a new release from burning, agile trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, and a new Threadgill record that label co-owner Seth Rosner has promised will blow my mind. I don’t doubt it. (pirecordings.com)
Once you hear the first few moments of any of the beautifully engineered CDs from this label, you’ll know that the name amounts to onomatopoeia. The label specializes in music that seeks sheer sonic beauty, from folk and baroque to new age to some of the leading contemporary music, like In the Light of Air, a collaborative masterpiece from composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir and the International Contemporary Ensemble. Sono Luminus is also the home of pianist Bruce Levingston, who mines the expressive riches of great piano music from the romantic era through minimalism. Also exemplary of the label’s philosophy, and just damn good music, are cellist Peter Gregson’s Touch; Transitions; a recital from excellent New York cellist Michael Nicolas; and violist Melia Watras’s Ispirare, one of the most beautiful recordings of the past few years. (sonoluminus.com)
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.