July 29-August 4, 2004
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
An upstart indie label finds a niche in Philly.
Daniel Piotrowski fits the profile of a certain species of independent-music junkie: voracious, opinionated and evangelical about the stuff he loves. He hosted an eclectic radio show at University of Maryland. He penned pieces for his hometown Baltimore City Paper. And after moving here a few years ago, he served as a reviewer for Philadelphia Weekly, along with specialized music rags such as Signal to Noise.
Then he took a step outside the safety zone of music geekdom, with an idealistic and highly risky endeavor. High Two Recordings, which made its public debut this summer, has already commanded the attention of the avant-garde jazz community worldwide. Needless to say, it's a welcome new arrival in Philly's indie scene.
"The idea came to me when I first came up here and realized that no labels in Philly were dealing with the jazz that I wanted to listen to," Piotrowski recalls. "Then when Mark Christman told me that Dave Burrell was getting rejected by what I consider subpar labels, that's when I realized that this was my opportunity. This was my chance."
Some background: Piotrowski and Christman first crossed paths in the mid-'90s. The latter runs the concert production group Ars Nova Workshop and serves in a managerial capacity for Burrell a pianist and composer whose legend has often been overlooked even in the free-jazz community with which he's most closely aligned. As it happens, Christman also introduced Piotrowski to percussionist Kevin Diehl, during an Ars Nova-sponsored performance by Diehl's Sonic Liberation Front in 2002.
With Burrell and Sonic Liberation Front in mind, Piotrowski set the wheels in motion. Among those he consulted for guidance was Steven Joerg, whose AUM Fidelity label had taken Piotrowski on as its first intern six years ago. "He called last summer to run by me his desire to start a new label focused on the incredible talent he was hearing in Philadelphia," recalls Joerg. "I told him that it was really not the best time to do so, because of the soft market, sliding economy and so forth. Fortunately for the sake of beauty, that did not dissuade him." Joerg would eventually partner with Piotrowski by distributing High Two through AUM Fidelity channels an arrangement that has helped the fledgling label make a fast impact in an oversaturated market.
But let's get back to the music. At the end of last year, Christman booked Burrell on a two-week tour with his Full-Blown Trio, featuring bassist William Parker and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Soon after, the band entered Systems Two recording studio in Brooklyn and, with Piotrowski overseeing, recorded what would become Expansion, the first entry in High Two's catalog.
"I worked with Dan in a very close, personal way," reflects Burrell, who cites Expansion as his finest recorded work. "I think the relationship is very good. When the artist has as much input as Dan has allowed, everybody's a lot happier." Which isn't to say that Piotrowski was an idle participant. "When Dave and I sat down to talk about this record," the producer recalls, "I didn't want him to do just free jazz, or all improv. I wanted him to think about and make a real album, with songs, to really show that side of himself."
What resulted was an often whimsical but highly impressive program. Burrell backs his skittering turns of phrase with an encyclopedic command of jazz traditions; the album's literal centerpiece is the standard "They Say It's Wonderful," performed in a convincing two-handed stride piano style. The remaining six songs, Burrell originals, vary widely in dynamic and tone; their not-so-common denominator is the intuitive strength of the trio, which is otherwise distinguished by the elastic peregrinations of Parker's bass and the shadings of Cyrille's drums. It's no wonder the Full-Blown Trio made a strong showing during a recent gig at Tonic, New York's new-music hub.
Meanwhile, Sonic Liberation Front came to High Two with half an album's worth of material already in the can, thanks to Diehl's enterprising spirit and functional home studio. But that wasn't the reason for the label's involvement. "I've been a fan of theirs and think they do something that no one else does," Piotrowski enthuses. What Sonic Liberation Front does, so to speak, is forge an amalgam of Afro-Cuban music and the language of post-'50s jazz without ever slipping into the hybrid subgenre known as Latin Jazz. Diehl, a former student of free-jazz drumming legend Sunny Murray, has also spent years drumming in the Yoruba religious community. "In these ceremonies we do, these bembes," the percussionist explains, "there are song forms, simple folk melodies that go over top of these rhythms, and there are choruses that repeat. It's like when [avant-garde sax icon] Albert Ayler had these lyrical folk melodies with free music underneath it. So there's a strong relationship between post-bop music and the Yoruba."
Those predisposed to doubt Diehl's claim might reconsider after a spin through Ashé A Go-Go, SLF's offering on High Two. Ably augmented by bassist Andy Gonzalez, a towering figure in contemporary Afro-Cuban music, the band creates a thick tapestry of polyrhythmic percussion. Vocalists occasionally surface, delivering spirited incantations. A horn section appears too, floating over the rhythms with loosely scripted fragments of melody. "One of the things I've always said is once you hear it, you get it," says Diehl. "We were never into the hardcore bebop clique, so we kind of operate outside of that. We're going to demonstrate that free music can groove. To me it's quite natural."
Natural is also how Diehl describes his rapport with Piotrowski, who served as the album's executive producer. "We really worked well together," the percussionist recalls. "Whatever back and forth we had was really subtle." And the release of Ashé A Go Go has already prompted an upturn in performance opportunities for the band.
"The idea is always to bring the music to a wider audience," Piotrowski says, and what may seem a too-obvious statement rings true in this case. "My next two releases are not going to be jazz. There's a band from Seattle called A Cricket in Times Square that kind of sounds like Echo and the Bunnymen or Galaxie 500; that's the next release, coming out on Election Day. And we're working with a band called Arc and Sender, instrumental rock from Baltimore. They're recording in August for a December or January release." He further notes that High Two will be releasing the next album by Philly singer-songwriter Adam Arcuragi.
Yet Piotrowski promises he isn't abandoning jazz. "When Thrill Jockey puts out something that's jazz-related," he says, referencing the indie label best known for Chicago post-rock, "it sells more than it would on some other label. I want to bridge that gap here in Philly and not isolate myself into being a jazz label." As a long-term strategy, it makes a certain sense.
It also aligns nicely with High Two's intensely personal vision. "In some ways I think of it like my radio show, or like a fanzine," Piotrowski muses. "I don't want to limit myself to what I would be covering. At the same time, whatever I like, I feel I have to present."
Sonic Liberation Front plays a CD release show Sat., July 31 at Tritone, 1508 South St., 212-545-0475. Dave Burrell plays a solo piano concert Aug. 28 at the Philadelphia Art Alliance, 251 S. 18th St., 215-545-4302. For information about High Two Recordings, go to www.hightwo.com.