20-Year-Old Pi Recordings Builds Path from Past to Future

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​Pi founders Yulun Wang (left) and Seth Rosner

(Photo: Jonathan Finlayson)

Pi Recordings is one of the most respected labels in jazz, routinely presenting innovative, challenging work from veterans like Henry Threadgill, Art Ensemble of Chicago and Wadada Leo Smith, as well as modern-day masters like Tyshawn Sorey and Vijay Iyer, and up-and-coming creators like saxophonist Anna Webber. The label’s catalog is tightly curated — fewer than 100 releases in two decades — but conceptually unified. Pi releases rigorous, pathbreaking music that stretches the boundaries of jazz while honoring its history.

Seth Rosner started the label in 2001 while working at New York’s famed Knitting Factory. His first two releases were by Threadgill; one bid farewell to the saxophonist-composer’s 1990s band Make A Move, while the other introduced Zooid to the world. Those were followed by discs from Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory, Smith’s Golden Quartet and Fieldwork, a trio led by Iyer. Before long, Rosner got a cold call from Yulun Wang, a former finance industry professional looking to do something a little more fulfilling.

“I’ve always been a big jazz fan and had been super impressed with Seth’s first five releases,” Wang said via a Google meeting in mid-March. “Back in 2001, to have musicians of that caliber show up on a label that I knew nothing about was something of a surprise.”

Their partnership has endured, and grown, ever since — they are Pi’s only employees.

Turning 20 this year, Pi is one of the labels most invested in present-day documentation of the work of prominent AACM artists. In addition to those mentioned above, Pi has worked with George Lewis, Fred Anderson and Muhal Richard Abrams. Rosner said, “Just to say it in the simplest terms, a bunch of African-American guys from the South Side of Chicago who go out and take over Europe and just advocate for themselves and do it. Forget about the fact that it’s avant-garde … if you look at the arc of that, and what those guys have accomplished, it’s unbelievable.”

Pi is also a label whose roster is stocked with prize winners — Threadgill has a Pulitzer; he and Mitchell are both NEA Jazz Masters; Iyer, saxophonist Steve Coleman and Sorey are MacArthur Fellows — whose releases regularly top critics polls. Its founders see that as a reflection on their artists, not themselves. As accolades rolled in year after year, Rosner said, “It began to look like, ‘Hey, someone is recognizing not necessarily what we’re doing, but what the artists are doing,’ and it just happens to be that we’re the guys documenting that.”

But Pi is interested in more than supporting avant-garde jazz legends; the label is engaged in a broader project of building a path from the music’s past to its future.

“That was something that I had hoped,” Rosner said. “And, as Yulun and I got together, we agreed that would be a foundation of Pi: to have these older musicians and still have a mentoring, nurturing relationship with younger musicians and let them grow through that and be the next branch of it.”

Pi’s 2021 slate of releases is in line with that overall mission and its history to date. In addition to albums by saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh (with Pi since 2010) and vocalist Jen Shyu (onboard since 2011), the label is preparing a double CD by Webber; a six-CD set by pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Kate Gentile’s Snark Horse project performing one-bar compositions with a pool of improvisers; a live album by Steve Coleman; and, to cap off the year, the latest album by Threadgill and Zooid to be released in conjunction with his autobiography, written with Brent Hayes Edwards. DB



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