Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

Liberty Ellman had a problem. He needed to document his original music, but the record company landscape looked bleak. Living in the Bay Area rather than Los Angeles or New York, the nation’s music business capitals didn’t help. So Ellman did what a lot of young, resourceful musicians do: he started his own label. Looking to the field of astronomy, he settled on the name Red Giant. (Our sun will become one when it dies in roughly five billion years.)

The first Red Giant release (catalog number RG-1, 1997) was Ellman’s Orthodoxy. Then 27, the good-looking, goateed guitarist appeared unsmiling on the cover in a puffy down jacket, arms folded, in front of a picture of the planet Jupiter (not a red giant, but close). The album began with a dark, spacey track called “Translator,” featuring the turntables of DJ Pause. It concluded with a piano-guitar duo interpretation of Billy Strayhorn‘s classic ballad “Blood Count.” When Bill Frisell heard the Strayhorn cut years later during a Blindfold Test in DownBeat magazine, he responded, “I’m a has-been!”

This was music forged in an interstitial space between canonical jazz, underground hip-hop, and the dense, polyrhythmic vocabulary of M-Base (macro-basic array of structured extemporizations). Orthodoxy was Ellman’s sound, but it also gave voice to a fledgling Bay Area collective, a clique that had emerged from regional workshops led by M-Base’s creator and figurehead, alto saxophonist Steve Coleman.

Back in Brooklyn, Coleman had formed the M-Base Collective with kindred spirits like Greg Osby, David Gilmore, Graham Haynes, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Cassandra Wilson. Together, they bypassed the chasm separating the avant-garde and traditionalist camps in jazz, putting forward their own manifesto for musical progress. For Ellman and his colleagues—including pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Eric Crystal, both of whom played on Orthodoxy—the M-Base Collective provided not only musical inspiration, but also a viable cultural model for their own pursuits. With Red Giant Records, their budding Bay Area collective had found a flag of sorts.

The Red Giant “sound,” if such a thing exists, tends to be tempo-based, with ambiguous harmonies and angular lines placed over layered, intersecting polyrhythms that render the downbeat a perpetually shifting question mark. But unlike free jazz, this music has form and structure, or as Iyer calls it, “hidden order.” Drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee uses the term “rhythmic literacy” to distinguish the camp’s compositional approach. “These guys write for the drum set,” Kavee says. Rather than having the drummer create a part as an afterthought, he explains, the composer will “build a polyrhythmic structure into the piece. It’s almost like chord changes for drummers.” Tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart, discussing his work with Iyer and Kavee in an experimental trio called Fieldwork, elaborates: “We’ll spend a good hour or two working on a small number of transitions or different shadings of a particular rhythm.” Drummer Derrek Phillips explains his own rhythmic epiphany this way: “I don’t even hear 4/4 anymore, even when the music is in 4/4. My whole concept of counting and pulse has been totally renovated.”

Ellman’s goal in founding Red Giant was to bring these new languages to light, not to build a thriving business. “The label was never intended to operate in terms of profit,” he explains. “The goal was to further the careers of the artists, not to further the company.” Still, the company grew. Eric Crystal released Dark Matter and Frame. The hip-hop group Midnight Voices, with whom Ellman had performed, came on board with their Howling at the Moon. Vijay Iyer released his second album, Architextures, under the dual imprint of Red Giant and Asian Improv aRts, another forward-looking music collective. Iyer’s debut release for Asian Improv, Memorophilia, was reissued on Red Giant as RG-2.

It wasn’t long, however, before the whole operation packed up and moved to New York City, where opportunities were more abundant. (Peter Apfelbaum, Jenny Scheinman, Dred Scott, Joel Harrison, and the renowned eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter are just a few of those outside the Red Giant clan who moved east during roughly the same period.)

Ellman was born in London and raised in Manhattan and Queens. (His father, Kevin Ellman, played percussion in Todd Rundgren‘s Utopia.) He spent his entire adolescence and young adulthood on the West Coast, attended Sonoma State University, and hosted marathon rehearsals in the garage of his rental house in Oakland, described by Iyer as an “informal community center.” Still, Ellman speaks of his move “back” to New York, whereupon he formed a trio with local bassist Stephan Crump and fellow Bay Area expat Derrek Phillips (who now plays with Charlie Hunter). For nearly two years, the trio held a Tuesday night residency at Ciel Rouge, a hip but tiny bar in Chelsea. This provided not only a creative forum, but also a social setting, for Ellman and his newly transplanted crew.

Vijay Iyer was born to Indian immigrant parents in Rochester, New York. He earned a math and physics degree at Yale in 1992 and began a Ph.D. in physics at UC Berkeley, but soon dropped it in favor of a self-designed program in music and cognitive science. At Berkeley he came under the tutelage of trombonist and computer music pioneer George Lewis, an important figure in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), formed in 1960s Chicago as an emancipatory vehicle for innovative African-American composers. Iyer also toured and recorded with Steve Coleman’s Mystic Rhythm Society, a band he helped to name. And while studying with Coleman at the Stanford Jazz Workshop, he bonded with an alto saxophonist and fellow Indian-American from Chicago—by way of Boulder, Colorado—named Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Mahanthappa graduated from Berklee and received a Masters in composition from Chicago’s DePaul University, but he had spent enough time in the Bay Area to be considered an honorary resident. After moving to New York, he formed an inspired duo with Iyer called Raw Materials. He also appeared on Iyer’s third Red Giant release, the critically acclaimed Panoptic Modes. With a quartet (also featuring Iyer), Mahanthappa recorded an ambitious suite for Red Giant titled Black Water, which reached #3 on the CMJ jazz charts. His very first record, 1997’s Yatra, was reissued on Red Giant as well.

Elliot Humberto Kavee played drums on Black Water. Of Jewish and Nicaraguan descent, Kavee graduated from CalArts and, like Ellman, had been a member of Iyer’s Bay Area quartet Poisonous Prophets. He, too, made the move to New York, as did Aaron Stewart, a schoolmate of Iyer’s at Berkeley. There, the three—Iyer, Stewart, and Kavee—formed Fieldwork. Their first album, Your Life Flashes, came out not on Red Giant, but rather on Seth Rosner’s Pi Recordings.

Pi takes its name from the mathematical ratio that never repeats. The label made an immediate splash in 2001 with its first two, simultaneously released offerings, both by the revered altoist/flutist and composer Henry Threadgill. One of those albums, Up Popped the Two Lips by the acoustic band Zooid, featured Liberty Ellman on guitar. The next Pi release, Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory’s Song for My Sister, featured Iyer on piano. Rosner and the Red Giant circle began to sense a common mission.

Formerly with Knitting Factory Records, Rosner was eager to front a smaller operation that allowed him to give each release his full, sustained attention. He was particularly drawn to the still-evolving output of the AACM, with which Threadgill and Mitchell were closely associated. Soon another pivotal AACM figure, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, recorded Year of the Elephant for Rosner’s new label as well. (Pi’s enthusiasm for the AACM is shared by Thomas Buckner‘s Mutable Music, which has also recorded Mitchell, along with Muhal Richard Abrams, Jerome Cooper, and more.)

Iyer has deepened his ties to the avant-garde through performances with Lawrence “Butch” Morris and Cecil Taylor, in addition to Roscoe Mitchell. Aaron Stewart has given breathtaking performances with Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill. Pi was therefore a logical home for Fieldwork, and Your Life Flashes was a worthy premiere in every respect. The album’s metallic, over-dyed cover, with its vivid juxtaposition of silver and orange, showed that Rosner was willing and able to part with money for the sake of a visually striking product, one that conveyed something of the essence of Fieldwork’s dark, bass-less, infinitely complex dialogues.

Will Pi obviate the need for Red Giant? Pi has a modicum of capital at its disposal, while Red Giant projects remain largely artist-financed. Ellman himself will release his next quartet recording, Tactiles, on Pi. The soundtrack to “In What Language?”, an epic performance piece conceived by Iyer and hip-hop poet Mike Ladd, will appear on Pi as well. In addition, Red Giant is now piggybacking on Pi’s distribution deal with Nail, a subsidiary of the Oregon-based Allegro Corporation. (Initially, it was Pi who piggybacked with Steven Joerg’s Brooklyn-based AUM Fidelity label. Back on the West Coast, Ellman had a similar arrangement with City Hall through Noir Records.)

But as stated above, Rosner intends to keep Pi’s roster small and manageable. Red Giant therefore remains an option for those without a great many options. When pressed, Ellman ticks off a handful of Red Giant projects on the docket. “I still get a lot of demos,” he adds. Attracting solicitations was not at all what he had planned. But it was just such an out-of-the-blue pitch that led to guitarist Thor Madsen‘s invigorating Metal Dog (RG-7, 2000). Even Steven Bernstein, of Sex Mob fame, has approached Ellman with ideas for a side project or two.

What started as a survival tactic has blossomed into a solid artistic forum, yielding highly respectable (for the jazz world) results. Iyer, in fact, won the 2003 CalArts Alpert Award in the Arts. Now he’ll have 50,000 more dollars to work with.

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

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