CDs, LPs and the Future of a Record Label

The problem is, we’re easily convinced to do foolish things. We started with a few very good ideas, but then, we followed the crowd.

The first of the good ideas goes back to Edison in the late 1880s: record about two minutes of sound on a rotating tube coated with wax. Technology improved: two minutes became three and four minutes; microphones were invented and allowed far greater fidelity by the 1920s, and, of course, the world adopted the 78rpm disc as the industry standard that became known as a “record.” By the late 1950s, the long-playing (“LP”) increased running time so that a full symphony or a Broadway cast recording could be presented on a single disc. By the 1950s, the 33 1/3 rpm disc became the industry standard as a record “album” (replacing the old album filled with several 78 rpm discs). The 45 rpm single came along at about the same time. With proper care, these plastic (vinyl) discs could last a very long time, but the combination of scratches (even with the best of care), and dust (few people washed their LPs, but today, many people do) gave the record industry good reason to pivot to a new format: CDs. And so, many of us re-bought the same titles we owned on LP and enjoyed what we had been led to believe was a more durable, better-sounding format. Smaller and portable, too. Then, we were convinced to re-buy our music track-by-track for inclusion on even smaller, more versatile listening devices, including iPods and later, our phones and iPads. And then, we were convinced that there was no need to own music, that subscribing to music was a much better idea. And for casual listening to popular music, it is, indeed, a better idea.

However. Only about half of recorded music is popular music. The other half is less popular, but often, more interesting. While everyone else seemed to be spending money on subscription services, I frequented record stores that sold large quantities of classical, opera, choral, jazz, Broadway, blues, folk, country, classic rock, and other forms of music for remarkably low prices. Nearly all in superb condition. Along the way, I became more enamored of music from the 1950s through the 1980s than contemporary work. Then, I started to think about that. What was I missing? What happened to the record label? Were there labels that were continuing to release interesting work that, somehow, I was not seeing online, not reading about in newspapers, not showing up on the counter of my local record store?

Yup! Pi Recordings is a very good example. There are others, and I will write about them as I continue to listen to the good work they’ve released, and continue to release, most often on–gasp!–CD.

If we go back a bit, record labels were associated with distinctive personalities. For example, Stax Records, in Memphis, released a particular type of soul music. Blue Note Records, in NYC, focused on small group jazz, then modern jazz. Chess Records, in Chicago, concentrated on blues and some R&B. Later, and ongoing, ECM Records, in Munich, Germany, developed a unique brand with a combination of avant-garde jazz and classical music with a modernist sensibility. Most former labels are now reduced to imprints, sub-brands within far larger companies, notably Concord and Universal. ECM Records remains independent, but it relies upon larger companies for marketing and distribution throughout the world. Larger companies may or may not respect the unique brand identity of the original label.

And so, back to Pi. Here is a modern label with a distinct personality, a reliably avant-garde profile with a consistent run of superb, modern, interesting, 21st century music. It is a delight to listen to each of the CDs, and to learn about a distinctive group of rather special artists.

This morning, I’ve been listening to one of Pi’s most consistent sellers, Verisimilitude by drummer/percussionist Tyshawn Sorey. It was recorded about five years ago, but no matter. It is fresh, filled with original ideas and a flow that makes for casual listening, background, or sit-up-and-pay-attention listening. It is abstract, it floats along, and I find myself writing for a while, then stopping to listen more carefully and playing a particular passage two or three times to get a better listen. It’s trio music. Chris Tordini is the bassist, and Corey Smythe plays piano, toy piano and electronic instruments. But…if you asked me to identify the instruments, or count them, I would find it difficult to answer because the sounds themselves are distinct, different from the usual concept of instrumental songs. Instead, it’s a soundscape, sometimes musical, sometimes something else that is provocative, intelligent and enjoyable, but does not require academic study for comprehension. It just feels modern, and it feels good. In fact, Sorey is both the modern musician and the academic–he is now on the faculty of The University of Pennsylvania, teaching composition. He is often offered as an exemplar of modern abstract music, the subject of magazine articles about contemporary music. And yet, his work is entirely accessible, and I’m thrilled to tell you that each of his Pi Recordings are worth owning. Uncertain? Watch the videos, but allow yourself the time and space to pay attention.

And yes, I wrote “owning” this music. Sure, that may be a divergent idea for 2021, but listening to this music with a good CD player and a good pair of headphones is a delightful way to spend a summer day. If you have the option don’t listen to this music on an inferior sound system. It’s all about the subtlety of sound, the feeling brought on by particular instruments and sound patterns. Pi Recordings are prepared, and produced, with such care, you’ll miss a lot if you’re not listening in the best possible way (not to say that the recordings are inferior on lesser systems, but there is so much here, and I want you to enjoy all of it). If I were to recommend a second purchase, I suppose it would be The Inner Spectrum of Variables, but there’s ample opportunity to sample a lot of his work online, so please, go explore.

I like the idea of “label-mates,” a term not so often heard these days. With Chess Records, I enjoyed listening to, say, Muddy Waters, and I trusted Chess to offer more good records by more good artists, so it was an easy jump to Willie Dixon or Howlin’ Wolf. I found Arvo Pärt because I trusted ECM’s musical judgement with regard to Keith Jarrett. With streaming services, we do have recommendation engines–if you liked this artist, then you’d like this one, too–but this is algorithmic, so it’s not based upon the creative instincts of label executives dedicated to the music. And there is a difference.

I trust Pi Recordings, so I’m more likely to open, say, a more ambitious release by, say, the Steve Lehman Trio. And when I hear Lehman’s alto sax meander through “Prelude,” which opens a 2019 recording called The People I Love, I’m primed to pay attention and enjoy. And suddenly, I’m following a line of musical thinking that leads me into “Ih Calam & Ynnus,” which begins calmly with Craig Taborn’s piano and quickly jumps into a far more abstract improvisation (sounds like an improvisation, anyway) with Damion Reed rolling through drums. Long lines, complex stuff, but Pi has built the necessary scaffolding. Things calm down with “Curse Fraction,” and if you’re getting the impression that is is, somehow, smart music, or music for smart people, maybe that’s part of the brand. Again, accessible and welcome, but the music does provide a bit of a ride. As it should. I feel as though I am listening to something new, extraordinary well-done, and crafted with the greatest of care. The sound mix on this track, for example, seems especially well-balanced–again, providing good reason for fully-engaged listening, again, preferably on a sound system that allows you to hear the artists’ work as it was played and recorded.

Trust matters. I like what I hear, so I trust the label and allow myself to listen to an artist whose name, instrument choice, style and sensibility is unfamiliar, even strange to me. So here’s Jen Shyu, who plays the 2-stringed Taiwanese Moon Lute, the 12-stringed Korean zither, the Korean gong, and the Javanese gamelan idiophone (that is, the gat kim, gayaguem, ggwaenggwari and kemanak), and sings in a combination of traditional and new ways. Accompanied by trumpet, viola, bass and drums, Sounds and Cries of the World is a multi-cultural musical enterprise. And it works. Like other titles in the growing Pi Recordings catalog, this one comes from an academic arts tradition, growing from the artist’s cultural studies with The Asia Society and the Asian Cultural Council. Given the wonderful popularity of Rhiannon Giddens, on Nonesuch, whose work (post Carolina Chocolate Drops) has been concerned with historical and cultural aspects of music from her heritage, music that grows from musicology doesn’t seem as strange or foreign as it did in the past century. And the combination of those sounds with more modern arrangements and practices makes the music even more interesting.

And the label continues to grow. There’s a new Jen Shyu album, just released, entitled Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses, and “devoted to the marginalized voices of women around the world.” Happily, this album follows Song of Silver Geese, which The New York Times recognized as one of the year’s best several years ago. Even more happily, you can listen to, and watch, the work of Jen Shyu by visiting Pi’s website.

This is no minor effort, this notion of a 21st century record label. There are now about 100 CDs in the Pi Recordings catalog. Included are several by long-time jazz leader Henry Threadgill–the label’s first artist, and Hafez Modirzadeh, a Professor of Creative/World Music at San Francisco State University, whose recent release, Facets, also features Craig Taborn and Tyshawn Sorey (when musicians play together in different combinations for the same label, sometimes, good things happen). That one’s on my list for future listening, as are the two albums by Miles Okazaki, the newer one, The Sky Below, and a very well-reviewed and well-regarded 2017 release called Trickster.

I could easily lose myself in a full summer’s exploration of the Pi Recordings catalog, catching up with what is likely to be even more new releases to accompany our post-pandemic world. Thing is, I find myself stopping everything else I’m doing in order to listen more carefully. To listen more carefully–isn’t that the reason for all of this? Streaming seems to me another way to say, listen less carefully. I prefer the Pi formula. Music is worth the time, and I am extremely appreciative of the effort, care, love, and intelligence that this (now 20-year-old) label has brought to the marketplace and the cultural landscape. Please listen. And buy yourself a CD today. (Or, listen via Bandcamp–these guys are living in the 21st century, and doing the best they can to keep a lot of plates spinning.)

Not incidentally, those guys do have names, an office and a website. They are Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang, their office is in Brooklyn, and you can learn more about them by visiting their About page, which leads to 2011 New York Times article about their story.






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