One thing Pi Recordings has going for it is exposure. They send CDs out to radio stations, college radio in particular, and manage to snag reviews in most jazz publications, it seems. The investment has paid off, making the label an NPR darling.
So, it’s getting less and less surprising to see Pi stuffing year-end Top 10 lists, such as the recently released Fifth Annual Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll, a big-deal poll that’s often stacked on the side of creative music.
I’m not trying to say Pi’s only trick is to get in people’s faces. The music is good, and no amount of promotion could gain Pi its following otherwise. Plus, Pi’s artist list includes innovative and noticed new artists (Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer) alongside venerable free-jazzers (Henry Threadgill, whose name graced Pi’s first two albums, and Steve Coleman). It adds up to that intangible quality that helps make a label stand out: a sound. Maybe I’m cheating by picking related artists (note especially the Coleman influence on Iyer and Mahanthappa), but I do think Pi has come to stand for a new type of jazz structure, one that swings with an intricate logic. That identity has led to a devotion among critics, making Pi a bit of a starmaker.
Another year-end poll regular, Clean Feed, does not service college radio, but they do seem to send out enough review copies to stay on the radar. Good thing, too, because as the Village Voice‘s Francis Davis puts it, Clean Feed is becoming the 2000s equivalent of Black Saint/Soul Note: a European label doing yeoman’s work at documenting American jazz. Again, you could argue that it’s all about the numbers game of exposure. But as with Pi, it’s the high quality of the music that keeps ’em coming back and primes critics’ attention for a CD from a new voice such as Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch, which won Best Debut among the pollsters. (That category’s voting was sparse, but it’s still one for the “W” column. Congratulations!)
Two dozen Clean Feed CDs received votes in the Village Voice‘s poll. Smaller labels like Pi pick their targets carefully, but Clean Feed releases music in big chunks. That 24 of its albums were poll-worthy speaks to a consistency of quality.
Keep in mind, we’re talking about a poll among critics — people whose ears perk up at the news of a new Mary Halvorson release or who tear open a Threadgill package with eager anticipation. As history repeatedly proves, scoring high on the critics’ list doesn’t always pay the bills. Still, the recognition has to be nice — and it’s gratifying for us listeners to see these names get their deserved accolades and to have their work submitted into the debates about the year’s achievements. That’s why we like end-of-year lists, or critics’ polls, or all-star games.
Artwork lifted from azwaldo on Flickr.
Some previous Lisa Mezzacappa/Bait & Switch mentions: