[Zombies] Thirsty Ear/MBM Article In Boston Globe

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Fri May 27 11:56:45 EDT 2005

Here's a better cut'n paste version..

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Thirsty Ear/MBM Article In Boston Globe

Genre bender
A small Connecticut label is creating a new kind of music. But is anybody
By Steve Greenlee, Globe Staff  |  May 27, 2005

NORWALK, Conn. -- On a narrow one-way street crammed with auto repair shops,
in a squat building with a sign out front that says ''Bartoli Electric Co.,"
a music revolution is taking place.

In this unlikeliest of locations, a small label called Thirsty Ear Records
has been creating for the past three years a new kind of music that bridges
the worlds of jazz, electronica, and hip-hop. Though the label has brought
in a roster of respected artists from several different genres, the
direction of this music is largely the vision of two people -- the label's
owner and head, 53-year-old Peter Gordon, and the avant-garde jazz pianist
Matthew Shipp, who is 45.

Gordon, who works in a small, wood-paneled office on the first floor (which
Thirsty Ear shares with Bartoli, an electrical contractor), and Shipp, who
works mostly from his apartment in New York, are at the vanguard of the
freshest movement in jazz since the fusion of the 1970s. Since 2002, they
have brought together such disparate artists as hip-hop's DJ Spooky and
Antipop Consortium, electronica's DJ Wally and Meat Beat Manifesto, and jazz
musicians such as bassist William Parker and saxophonist David S. Ware. The
result has been album after album of music that blends elements of each
genre but sounds like something entirely new. And yet there is such a
continuity of concept -- and such consistent quality -- that it is no
stretch to say there is a Thirsty Ear sound.

The question is whether anyone is listening. When Miles Davis released his
epic ''Bitches Brew" in 1969, it roared into the jazz and rock worlds, and
fusion supergroups like Weather Report and Return to Forever were soon born.
In contrast, jazz-electronica -- some call it jazztronica -- hasn't found
the same success. The most popular Thirsty Ear albums have sold 30,000
copies; some have sold only 1,000. Jazz radio stations don't play the music.
Neither do pop or hip-hop stations.

''We're not your prototypical jazz label, nor are we your hip-hop label or
your electronica label," Gordon says. ''You could say we're in a crack. Or
you could say we're creating our own crack."

A Blue mood
The story of Thirsty Ear goes back to 1977, when Gordon started the company
in New York to market alternative music. It eventually became a record label
in 1990. In the '90s, Thirsty Ear also managed 2.13.61, the label owned by
Henry Rollins, the punk rocker and spoken-word performance artist. Rollins
released Shipp's 1996 album ''2-Z" on 2.13.61 (the label is named for
Rollins's birthdate). That was Gordon's introduction to the avant-garde jazz
scene. Shipp recorded his next album for Thirsty Ear and then flirted with
the idea of giving up recording altogether in order to concentrate on
performing. He changed his mind when Gordon proposed creating the Blue
Series for avant-garde jazz, and asked Shipp to be its artistic director.

The first album in the Blue Series was Shipp's ''Pastoral Composure" from
2000, a beautiful quartet record that in no way signaled what was to come.
Two years later, around the time Gordon moved Thirsty Ear to Norwalk so he
could be closer to home, the shift began. In 2002 Thirsty Ear released
Shipp's ''Nu Bop," and it should have struck the jazz world with as much
force as ''Bitches Brew" did, except that Miles Davis recorded for Columbia,
a major label. ''Nu Bop" was jarring -- Shipp's thick, attacking chords
against a backdrop of beats created by the producer FLAM. It was the first
shot in the jazztronica movement, and artists such as guitarist John
Scofield, pianist Uri Caine, and trumpeter Dave Douglas soon offered
projects in the same vein.

In the three intervening years, mainstream artists have returned to form,
abandoning the electronics as quickly as they picked them up. But Thirsty
Ear has persisted, releasing enough albums on its own -- eight to 10 a year
-- to fill its own subgenre. Shipp teamed up with a popular hip-hop duo for
the wild album ''Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp. DJ Spooky worked with Shipp's
circle of musicians to cut and paste his way to one of the most rewarding
listens of 2002, ''Optometry." The guitarist Charlie Hunter and the drummer
Bobby Previte have joined forces as Groundtruther, incorporating electronic
textures into their jazz-rock enterprise. The British noise-rock outfit
Spring Heel Jack has gathered large ensembles of avant-garde jazzers for a
series of albums.

The most fully realized project yet in the Blue Series marriage of jazz and
electronica arrives in stores on Tuesday from Meat Beat Manifesto. Jack
Dangers, the man behind Meat Beat Manifesto, is a sound sculptor who creates
albums from samples, beats, original music, and spoken words. He also plays
bass and reeds and has long been interested in jazz. He approached Thirsty
Ear about doing an album after hearing some of the discs in the Blue Series.

''I liked the approach they were using with jazz and electronic music,"
Dangers says from his home in San Francisco. ''I dug what they were doing,
and they had heard of me and liked what I did, so they were into it straight

Dangers says ''At the Center" is his most musical record, mostly because he
was able to work with accomplished jazz musicians, who included drummer Dave
King of the Bad Plus, the keyboardist Craig Taborn, and Gordon himself, who
plays flute. Although the music sounds organic, Dangers was never in the
studio with the musicians. Instead, they recorded in New York, and Dangers
worked in San Francisco. Computer files were shipped back and forth, as
Dangers edited and manipulated the recordings he received, and Gordon
offered his own ideas. ''It was completely cross-country," Dangers says.
''Between the two of us, it just kept going through a process of filtering
and editing."

'A discovery label'
Whether the album will sell -- or be played on the radio -- is an open
question. ''At the Center," like everything else Thirsty Ear issues, is
challenging music that does not lend itself to the pop single or the jazz
tune. In truth, it's not pop, it's not electronica, and it's not jazz, and
this is where the trouble lies.

''The problem with the way we listen to music is it's genre-based," Gordon
says. ''When you attempt what we're doing, you fly in the face of quick
definition, and then you're not in anyone's comfort zone. Genres to us have
been a stumbling block." He continues: ''I've been in alternative music for
20 years, and we needed to find a new alternative. Alternative wasn't
alternative anymore. It becomes institutionalized. The only way to do that
was to find a new vein to tap."

Critics seem to like just about everything Thirsty Ear produces. At the same
time, no one is exactly surprised that radio stations aren't playing it and
that, in turn, the records aren't huge sellers.

''There's no place on the radio for it," says Jason Koransky, editor of the
jazz magazine Down Beat. ''Radio is stale. This is something you're going to
hear on a college radio station or Internet radio. Jazz radio drives you

That being the case, one wonders how long jazztronica will be with us,
particularly as the mainstream labels abandon it and only independents stick
with it. Right now, Thirsty Ear is the only label consistently producing
this brand of music.

Shipp sees signs that it is resonating with fans and bringing younger
listeners into jazz. He notes that a 17-year-old recently asked him to sign
a copy of the disc he did with Antipop Consortium. ''I definitely know we're
reaching a lot of different people we wouldn't be able to reach if we were
just doing straight jazz things," Shipp says.

Still, Gordon says he keeps Thirsty Ear's minimal impact on music in
perspective, and he says he doesn't worry much about sales. He's more
interested in putting good music on the shelves.

''Are we going platinum? No. Are we going gold? No. Are we holding our
weight against other releases in this kind of alternative area? Absolutely,"
he says. ''But we are a discovery label. You do have to discover us. We are
a word-of-mouth label. And we can't force ourselves down your throat. We
just don't have those catchy tunes to give you. We don't have singles. We
basically completely defy the very notion of what it is to be a record
company. What we do have is some spark of originality that attracts people.
We're doing it all wrong."

Steve Greenlee can be reached at greenlee at globe.com.
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