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A shot in the arm for jazz improv

Thirsty Ear Records shuns the trendy pop wave for new hybrid sounds.

February 09, 2003|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

The fight is on for the soul of jazz. In an era when the likes of Norah Jones and Diana Krall have made pop crooning the bread and butter of jazz record labels, a new avant-garde contender has emerged and is moving in the opposite direction. Thirsty Ear Records' Blue Series is reclaiming the youthful, intellectual challenge of jazz, finding new forms -- and audiences -- on the heady cutting edge of modern electronica, hip-hop and rock hybrids.

With 15 releases since 2000, the series is chasing the most difficult of jazz forms: the lightly structured improvisations called free jazz.

Curated by the dynamic, prolific improv pianist Matthew Shipp, the series includes bassist and frequent Shipp collaborator William Parker, saxophonist Tim Berne, trumpeter Roy Campbell and remarkable jazz-electronica collaborations with U.K. electronic outfit Spring Heel Jack and electronic composer DJ Spooky.

Thirsty Ear is not the first label to muck around in hybrid forms. Verve put out "Verve Remixed" in 2002, in which DJs made dance tracks out of jazz standards, and the label is planning a Roy Hargrove project featuring the trumpeter with neo-soul singers such as Erykah Badu and D'Angelo.

But those and other major-label experiments have been overt attempts to capture mainstream pop ears -- to make jazz sound like what the kids are listening to. The Blue Series is a push for jazz's new edge.

"The original idea behind the label was to take modern music or new jazz and to make conceptual albums," says Shipp, 41. "To get an idea for the album, then ... figure out exactly what musicians and approaches we need to go after a specific concept."

The progressive and sometimes chaotic vision of free jazz has never known much commercial success. But by attempting to define a new, lyrical voice inside that tradition, and by using a recurring stable of top musicians, the Blue Series is moving experimental jazz beyond the recordings of Don Cherry or James "Blood" Ulmer or Sun Ra, which were rooted in bebop. The Blue Series is the sound of right now.

The newest release, "Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp," due out Feb. 18, deftly reveals the deep root shared by jazz and the muted funk swing of seminal New York City avant hip-hop group Antipop Consortium.

Thirsty Ear President Peter Gordon emphasizes that this is not a process of combining unlikely sounds to create happy accidents. "We're not just documenting a live moment, but we're putting together a series with a coherent purpose that has a broader thematic, spiritual, philosophical and musical unity."

If a sold-out Jan. 25 concert at London's 1,000-seat Queen Elizabeth Hall is any indication, the audience for this music already exists, carved out of the cutting edge of electronica, hip-hop, dance and rock.

The live Blue Series improv session, featuring Shipp, Parker, sax player Evan Parker and legendary European drummer Han Bennink, as well as Spiritualized leader Jason Pierce and Spring Heel Jack, brought roars from the crowd and rave reviews, with the Guardian calling it "amazing, heartbreaking music."

The series sells relatively well, with individual releases ranging anywhere from 2,500 to 25,000 copies worldwide. Shipp says the series is meant to occupy much the same space established by the essential avant-garde jazz label ECM during the rock, pop and folk explosion of the 1960s.

"So we've created a look, feel and philosophical footprint that is maybe a safety zone that will make listeners feel comfortable with the challenging music," says Gordon.

Other 2003 releases will include "Dubtometry," an eclectic remix of DJ Spooky's original series album "Optometry," one of the series' most innovative and satisfying albums to date.

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