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Staunchly Original: Marking 20 Years of Pi Recordings

John Rogers (Threadgill) and Courtesy of Pi Recordings
Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, and Roscoe Mitchell with Don Moye

As we set out to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Pi Recordings, we wanted to spotlight the stellar roster of artists outside their fulcrum, which is the Association of the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

But our conversation with the label's co-owners, Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang, proved George Lewis’s theory correct: The sounds of Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams, and The Art Ensemble of Chicago amount to A Power Stronger Than Itself. The gravitational pull towards the revolutionary branch of musical iconoclasts from the South Side of Chicago is just too strong. So in this episode of The Checkout, we'll hear how that force pulled Rosner into its orbit when he began working at the Knitting Factory on Leonard Street in Lower Manhattan.

At that time, in 2001, the legendary composer, saxophonist and flutist Henry Threadgill was without a record deal. But he was on the cusp of making a musical breakthrough. Rosner decided to step in and record Threadgill as he transitioned from Make A Move (his longest-tenured group) to a new and unruly sextet called Zooid. Those first two albums set forth a blueprint for the label’s success, which emphasized listening experiences for the critical ear. It also documented Threadgill on a historic run — paving his path to a Pulitzer Prize in 2016, and an NEA Jazz Master fellowship this year.

Yulun and Seth (1 of 10).JPG
Jonathan Finlayson
Yulun Wang and Seth Rosner

Shortly after those two recordings, Rosner found his professional soulmate in Yulun Wang. They shared a quest to document the creatively brilliant and underrepresented, not only from the AACM but also forward-thinking artists elsewhere on the cutting edge, most recently Anna Webber, Kate Gentile and Matt Mitchell.

When Wang joined the team, he left the financial investment sector to spearhead The Meeting (2003), a new recording by The Art Ensemble of Chicago, followed by scores of others, including a historic convergence between pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, multi-instrumentalist George Lewis and saxophonist Fred Anderson.

For two decades, Pi Recordings' mission of not repeating itself has not faltered. Later this year, we'll invite Seth and Yulun back to the show to expand on our conversation, showcasing the cutting-edge jazz being expressed today.

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For more than 15 years, Simon Rentner has worked as a host, producer, broadcaster, web journalist, and music presenter in New York City. His career gives him the opportunity to cover a wide spectrum of topics including, history, culture, and, most importantly, his true passion of music from faraway places such as Europe, South America, and Africa.