It may take years to assess how much damage COVID-19 has done to jazz. Irreplaceable hangouts like D.C.'s Twins Jazz, New York's Jazz Standard and L.A.'s Blue Whale are gone. When musicians did play live, they stood six feet apart, behind plexiglass walls or with their wind instruments in fabric sleeves. Others simply took it on the chin, sharpened their acting skills and slung their masterclasses on Instagram.
Miraculously, none of these hardships hamstrung the genre's forward motion. Because if you survey the recorded work of practitioners like Georgia Anne Muldrow, Ambrose Akinmusire, Matthew Shipp, Miguel Zenón and the all-women septet Artemis—whether it was created before or during the outbreak—2020 was a terrific year for jazz. The recent output of Blue Note, ECM Records and other venerated labels is proof positive of this. Still, it's not the whole story.
A handful of independent labels—some of them owned by musicians, others merely by zealous music fans—didn't merely hang in there during the pandemic; they thrived during it. At least one popped up as the lockdown reached a fever pitch. And from TAO Forms' emphasis on "out" sounds to Truth Revolution's braiding of Latin and straight-ahead jazz to Whirlwind's embrace of everything hip, these relatively young labels couldn't be more stylistically diverse.
For Jazz Appreciation Month, let's enjoy the music spilling forth from the Lincoln Center and other prestigious institutions. But let's also lend our support to the small-scaled labels putting their noses to the stone during dangerous times. Here are ten jazz labels you need to know in 2021.
In March 2020, gigs screeched to a halt. That month, the drummer, improviser and composer Whit Dickey—who has been active in the downtown improvisational scene for decades—announced a new label with a distinct aesthetic and vision.
"TAO Forms is a new recording label which will be devoted to contemporary free jazz of an elevated & enlightened nature," the label declared in their inaugural Facebook post.
Their first offering was Matthew Shipp's solo piano album The Piano Equation, killing releases by tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, drummer Tani Tabbal and Dickey himself have followed.
If you're curious about where the New York improv scene is going, keep an eye on Dickey and his co-conspirators. They weren't only on the ground floor of this scene; they're adding new pages to its story.
Biophilia is where nourishing music and planetary health are intertwined—even on the most mundane, granular levels.
"I will be cognizant of my own resource consumption and environmental impacts," founder Fabian Almazan wrote on the label's website, proceeding to pledge to eat less meat, turn off unused lights and separate his recycling. All of this is to operate Biophilia with the flow of nature, not against it.
The label is a collaboration between Almazan—a celebrated pianist in his own right—and Jessica Wu, an environmental specialist and sustainability consultant. Accordingly, the lively music within—which often gravitates toward the experimental and improvisatory spaces—seems to propagate and twist like vines.
Truth Revolution Records
If Biophilia is unconventional in its environmental mission, Truth Revolution aims to change the game from an economic standpoint.
"This record label is unlike any other," its founders Zaccai and Luques Curtis described. "It allows its artist to remain the owner of their music and focuses more on the partnership with their artists." As they explain, his philosophy extends to every aspect of the record-making process, from recording to promotion.
Take a look at their roster, and you'll notice it splits the difference between traditional fare—like singer and multi-instrumentalist Orice Jenkins' tribute to Nat King Cole—and Latin gems like Andy González's Entre Colegas. If either of those is your lane, seek out Truth Revolution immediately.
Truth Revolution is plugged into tradition and elderhood, too. Check out Triangular III by the revered Jazz Messengers drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr., a crucial mentor to the label's founders who tragically left us this year.
Over the decades, trumpeter Dave Douglas has recorded with luminaries like John Zorn, Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin. In 2005, he ventured out with his label, Greenleaf Music. True to Douglas's prolific nature, Greenleaf's Bandcamp page is voluminous.
Still, don't be intimidated by the ocean of material. Dip in anywhere, and you're liable to find something compelling, like the captivating flutist Nicole Mitchell, the flowing drummer Rudy Royston and the kinetic fusion band Kneebody.
Much like Truth Revolution, Greenleaf works from an even-handed business model—half to the artist, half to the label. Plus, on Bandcamp, a $75-per-year subscription will net you an all-access pass to the entire catalog.
It's rare for any label to boast quality, quantity and transparency. If you're curious about where folk- and electronic-inflected jazz might head in the coming decade, Greenleaf is as accurate a compass as any.
Whirlwind is a towering UK jazz label plugged into the New York jazz scene. Beyond its terrific overseas artists, its NYC roster includes the fiery altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa, the cutting-edge tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III and the elegant trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.
A musician founded it, too; Whirlwind's American-born founder, Michael Janisch, is a keen electric and double-bassist and composer in his own right. His last album, the excellent Worlds Collide, came out on Whirlwind in 2019.
"I can't sign people as fast as I like," he admitted to JazzTimes in 2020. "I'd be totally happy just running the label, but I'd never touch my instrument. If I don't at least play my bass a couple of times a day, I feel like there's a part of me that's disappeared."
Janisch needs not to worry; he’s already signed some of the hippest acts the contemporary scene has to offer. Who will be next, either from New York or across the pond? Watch their space in the coming year and find out.
Edition, another preeminent British label, is riding into 2021 with heavy artillery, like tenor master Chris Potter, first-call drummer Jeff Ballard and bass pioneer Dave Holland. If you had told founder Dave Stapleton this a decade ago, he might have looked at you askance: He started the label simply to release his and his friends' music.
"When I started Edition in 2008, I never set out to build a label that would achieve an output that we have now," he told Jazz in Europe in 2018. "As more and more musicians asked me to release their music, the focus remained to provide an outlet rather than to build a business."
That music-first ethos paid off: Edition just scored its first GRAMMY win via the New York singer Kurt Elling's Secrets Are The Best Stories, which won Best Jazz Vocal Album at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards show. Once again, the jazz alliance between the U.S. and U.K. has paid off on a worldwide scale.
Jazz & People
Describing its approach as "artisanal" and "editorial" and its paramount value as "participation," Jazz & People is a fertile Paris label that makes extensive use of crowdfunding.
They named themselves after the Jazz & Peoples' Movement, a 1970s organization spearheaded by Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Lee Morgan to increase the presence of Black artists on radio and television. "Glory to our heroes," a caption on their website proclaims beside Kirk's visage.
Jazz & People may be more under-the-radar than the other selections here, but what they have on offer is no less stellar. This spring, they dropped the delightful Light Blue by pianist Simon Chivallon.
Plus, its pool of participants includes Walter Smith III, Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Yonathan Avishai—all of whom are pushing the music forward. Their presence alone is proof that Jazz & People is going places.
Another independent, musician-run label to support this year, Pyroclastic Records is run by the exquisite pianist Kris Davis. Her teeming duet album with Craig Taborn, Octopus, is a highlight of their catalog.
Pyroclastic also just put out Junk Magic's Compass Confusion, one of the most jarring and fascinating crossovers into electronic music this sphere has seen in years.
Davis founded Pyroclastic to holistic ends. "I launched Pyroclastic Records in hopes that I could grow a modest label to support a whole community within the creative music scene," she wrote on the label website. She wanted her artists to own their own masters and not take a financial hit to create.
"I knew I needed to develop a new model, so I created a nonprofit to support the work of the label," she wrote. As a result, "We've been steadily growing, releasing 5 [to] 6 albums per year."
Right now, their Bandcamp offers over a dozen selections by top-shelf artists like pianists Angelica Sanchez and Marilyn Crispell and trumpeter Nate Wooley. Whatever Pyroclastic has in store next, be advised not to sleep on it.
One thing to understand about the word "jazz" is that it's generally more restrictive than useful. Artists nominally in that sphere, like Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams and Roscoe Mitchell, have been just as liable to loosen the bonds and venture wherever they please.
Pi Recordings, which Seth Rosner and Yulun Wang have run for two decades, exists to document such borderless journeys. The label is spiritually linked to the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), an organization partly formed by Abrams to further musicians and educators.
They also champion younger artists in that musical family, like pianist Vijay Iyer and alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa. The later addition of Steve Coleman, a MacArthur Fellow who spearheaded the M-Base collective, opened up Pi Recordings' fanbase and further cemented their aesthetic.
"I don't think there's any other label—major, indie, mainstream or otherwise—that has had such a consistent string of recordings widely considered, at least among critics, to be among the most important releases of the year," saxophonist Steve Lehman, who has released a handful of records on the label, told The New York Times in 2011.
Pi currently has captivating releases by uncategorizable musical thinkers like Jen Shyu, Anna Webber and Hafez Modirzadeh on the docket. Overall, theirs is a space where stylistic delineations explode and things get genuinely interesting as a result.
Gregory Porter, whose album All Rise was nominated for Best R&B Album in 2020, and thrice-nominated pianist Joey Alexander got their start at Motéma. Their fellow nominee, the drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, passed through its ranks. Tenor saxophonist David Murray and pianist-composer Geri Allen reinvigorated their careers, too, while on the label.
Like Pyroclastic and Whirlwind, Motéma is artist-owned; label president Jana Herzen is a singer/songwriter and recording artist in her own right. She started Motéma in 1999 to put out her own music but eventually teamed up with Verve's VP of Marketing, David Neidhart, and producer/manager Suzi Reynolds to take it further.
"My folks had come into a little money at that time," Herzen recalled to JazzTimes in 2015. "They loved music almost as much as the science that occupied their days and nights and agreed to help bankroll it. The rest is history."
Motéma is riding high on Daring Mind, the second album by the spellbinding arranger Jihye Lee, which the large-ensemble visionary Darcy James Argue produced. Right now, Lee is plotting a possible release show once vaccinations have fully rolled out.
We may have only been able to enjoy records and livestreams while largely stuck at home for a year. But when gigs fire up again, the progressive strides these 10 labels have made will come to fruition. For now, dig deep, pick up some records and bear witness as jazz history unfolds before us.