- Phil Freeman
Episode 63 of the Burning Ambulance Podcast features an interview with Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang of Pi Recordings.
As you probably know by now, a typical episode is based around an interview with an artist. But Pi Recordings is such an important label when it comes to the kind of music covered on Burning Ambulance – I mean, Roscoe Mitchell, who’s released music on Pi both as a solo artist and with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, was the first ever guest on this show – that I thought it was important and worthwhile to have these guys on to discuss 20 years of the label.
I’ve been listening to their releases pretty much since the beginning – the first titles I heard were The Year of the Elephant, by Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet, and Organic Resonance, a live duo album by Wadada and Anthony Braxton, and The Meeting, a reunion album by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I was at one of the Art Ensemble’s performances at the New York jazz club Iridium that was recorded for the live double CD Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City; we talk about that record a little bit in the show. I haven’t heard every record they’ve put out, but I’ve heard at least half of them, and I’ve written about a ton of them for Bandcamp Daily, for Stereogum, for The Wire, for Burning Ambulance, for Jazziz, and probably other places as well. And I’ve known Seth and Yulun personally for years. I’ve run into them at the Jazz Gallery or at the Vision Festival or in record stores, and we’ve always gotten along and I’ve always enjoyed talking to them, and I think that feeling comes through in this conversation.
We talk about a lot of different things relating to the label in this interview. We start from the beginning, but it’s as much about philosophy as history – they talk about why they do what they do, the kind of music they’re choosing to support and promote with their releases, and what it says about the culture that their highly specific niche within the world of jazz has been so well received by critics and the public, and that so many of their artists have received major awards. I mean, Henry Threadgill is a Pulitzer Prize winner and an NEA jazz master. Roscoe Mitchell is an NEA jazz master. Vijay Iyer is a MacArthur fellow. Tyshawn Sorey is a MacArthur fellow. Wadada Leo Smith was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Pi releases routinely land at the top of jazz critics’ polls, every single year. Anybody looking at the landscape would have to say that if there’s any kind of debate about the status of traditional versus so-called avant-garde jazz, the avant-garde guys have won. But it’s still a business, and the music business is tough, tougher than ever, honestly. So we talk about the realities of what it’s meant to run a small independent label and how they’ve managed to keep it going for 20 years, too.
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Music featured in this episode:
Henry Threadgill, “Tickled Pink” (Up Popped The Two Lips)
Jen Shyu, “Living’s a Gift, Part 1 – Springtime” (Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses)