LABEL PROFILE Pi Recordings: A Home For Musicians Pushing Jazz Forward By Stewart Smith · October 31, 2019

Pi Recordings’s Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang will never forget the day they called Henry Threadgill to tell him he had won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music; he was only the third jazz artist to do so.

“We were so excited, we were tripping over each other trying to tell him about it,” laughs Wang. “And Henry was getting madder and madder, because he had no idea what we were talking about!”

Once all became clear, the mood was jubilant. “He’s really trying to invent his own musical language,” says Rosner of the master composer, saxophonist, and flutist. “For the Pulitzer people to finally recognize him for tackling this challenge—it’s definitely one of the prouder moments of my life.”

Rosner met Threadgill while working at New York venue The Knitting Factory. He floated to him the idea of releasing some music, and Pi Recordings was born. The label debuted in 2001 with the simultaneous release of two Threadgill albums, Everybody’s Mouth’s A Book and Up Popped The Two Lips. Things developed organically from there, with Threadgill’s AACM peers Roscoe Mitchell and Wadada Leo Smith both releasing music on the label. In 2002, Wang came on board, working with Rosner on a new album from AACM motherlode, the Art Ensemble Of Chicago.

“Through meeting artists, we started meeting other artists,” says Wang. With the emergence of a new generation, including Vijay Iyer, Steve Lehman, Liberty Ellman, and Tyshawn Sorey, Pi built a roster of acts who often collaborated on each other’s projects. “I don’t necessarily want to compare us to Blue Note,” says Rosner, “but in some respects it works the same way. The Blue Note house band—you knew everyone played on everyone else’s records. And that started to become a reality for us as well.”

In 2010, Pi began documenting the work of Steve Coleman, followed by his younger collaborators Jen Shyu, Jonathan Finlayson, and Miles Okazaki. For Wang, Coleman is one of the most important figures in contemporary jazz. “A lot of the things we hear on the scene today probably wouldn’t sound the same way if it wasn’t for Coleman pushing his rhythmic concepts 25 years ago,” he suggests.

The label is also home to several artists with Indian and Middle Eastern heritage: Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Amir ElSaffar, and Hafez Modirzadeh. And there’s a cadre of younger artists on the label who enjoy combining genres; Anna Webber’s work is heavily influenced by contemporary composition, while Dan Weiss and Matt Mitchell both have a strong avant-rock sensibility.

“For the most part, we really try to emphasize original music,” says Wang. “So really, we are looking for musicians who are not just great instrumentalists, not just bandleaders, but also really great composers, who try to push the music in ever widening directions. That’s really helped lead us to where we are today.”

Below, find some crucial selections from Pi Recordings’s expansive catalog, illustrating its breadth and depth.

Henry Threadgill
In For A Penny, In For A Pound 

Henry Threadgill

On this Pulitzer-winning masterpiece, Threadgill’s unconventional Zooid quintet dance through four intricate yet playful movements, each featuring particular instruments: drum and percussion, cello, trombone and tuba, guitar. Wang is reluctant to speak for Threadgill, but for him, the whole idea of Zooid is to invent a new form of group interaction. “Essentially, he asks each musician to play on and improvise along a system of prescribed intervals,” explains Wang. “To my ears it is a way for Henry to enforce counterpoint [and] make sure that everybody is interlocking yet doing their own thing. And that’s why you’ll never hear another band that sounds anything like it.”

Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance
Synovial Joints

Two years in the making, Steve Coleman’s Synovial Joints explores two compositional ideas: “musical movement employing connective principles,” and “camouflage orchestration,” a self-coined approach to arrangements inspired by Colman’s own field recordings from the Amazonian rainforest. “Steve’s always looking for different ideas from outside music that can be incorporated into his compositions,” Wang says. “When he was in Brazil, he started to hear all these sounds coming out of the jungle. Things would go in and out of focus, constantly.” On Synovial Joints, this untenable contrast translates into a dance of sorts; the  individual musicians’ intricate, overlapping rhythms carry the forefront as the greater ensemble shades in the margins, their colorful swells fading in and out of perspective.

Art Ensemble of Chicago
We Are On The Edge

Art Ensemble of Chicago

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD)

As the Art Ensemble approached its 50th anniversary in 2019, the challenge for surviving members Roscoe Mitchell and Don Moye was how to honor their past while looking forward. Their solution took Rosner and Wang by surprise. “As with all things, Roscoe and Moye took an idea and said ‘Great, we’re going to maximize it,’” says Rosner, “Of course it had to grow to an 18-musician ensemble!” For Wang, the album reinscribes the Art Ensemble motto: great Black music, ancient to future. “They pay homage to their past, but they’re also giving space to Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother and Tomeka Reid, really giving to the next generation, allowing them to bring their voice to this Art Ensemble philosophy. It’s an amazing album.”

Rudresh Mahanthappa featuring Kadri Gopalnath and the Dakshina Ensemble

For Wang, this 2008 meeting between Indian-American saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and a trio of Indian musicians led by the Carnatic saxophone master Kadri Gopalnath—who sadly passed away in October 2019—is one of the best combinations of jazz and non-Western music. “All too often, these projects come off as just jazz with some exotic flavoring, or the interaction never coheres,” Wang says. Kinsmen works so spectacularly, he adds, “not just because Rudresh has studied Carnatic music deeply, but because he took care to compose music that played to the strength of the Indian musicians. He really got them to buy into his vision.”

Tyshawn Sorey

Merch for this release:
Compact Disc (CD), 2 x Vinyl LP

From the monumental Pillars to the opera Cycles of My Being, the range of Tyshawn Sorey’s activities defies boundaries. Sorey is an incredible drummer, but as Wang notes, his own music is about space and flow. “A lot of this music is very stately, studied and slow rather than hit-hit-hit,” he says, “To me, that’s the beauty of his music. Here’s somebody who defies expectations.” Verisimilitude arrived in 2017, the same year Sorey became a MacArthur fellow at only 37. Recorded with pianist Cory Smythe and drummer Christopher Tordini, it subverts the jazz piano trio tradition with influences from Feldman, Debussy and Xenakis. Realizing its complexity in subtle ways, Verisimilitude is, as Rosner puts it, “an incredibly easy album to fall into.”

Steve Lehman Octet
Mise en Abîme

This stunning 2014 set from composer and saxophonist Steve Lehman’s octet continues his ground-breaking exploration of spectral harmony in jazz. “We had no clue how people were gonna receive this weird alien music,” says Rosner, “but to Steve’s credit, everyone embraced all of the different tones and these chords that don’t quite sound right. They could understand the coherence behind it.” For Wang, Lehman is an exacting composer who refuses to make things easy for himself: “To have the force of personality not just to create the music, but to get everybody to buy into your concept and to execute it on that level—that’s how you move the music forward.”

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