Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler

The Jazz Side Of Thrill Jockey Records

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The late saxophonist Fred Anderson recorded for Thrill Jockey with drummer Hamid Drake. i i

hide captionThe late saxophonist Fred Anderson recorded for Thrill Jockey with drummer Hamid Drake.

Jim Newberry/Courtesy of the artist
The late saxophonist Fred Anderson recorded for Thrill Jockey with drummer Hamid Drake.

The late saxophonist Fred Anderson recorded for Thrill Jockey with drummer Hamid Drake.

Jim Newberry/Courtesy of the artist

The Chicago-based record label Thrill Jockey, led by founder Bettina Richards, has been presenting music on its own terms since 1992. Like any great independent label, it's difficult to identify the core "sound" of its releases, but its fans can easily identify its curatorial spirit. This is by design. "The way I listen to music, there are no categorical limits," Richards says.

While the label has released albums from bands outside of Chicago from time to time, its identity remains linked to and highly supportive of its local music scene. The rich Chicago underground has often exuded an all-inclusive identity. Take, for example, the AACM and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with their embrace of experimental styles and "ancient to the future" mentality. These ideals have factored prominently into the design of the label. "People label genres to make them seem separate, when to me, these genres are not so separate at all," Richards says.

Though largely associated with rock, Thrill Jockey has embraced jazz and experimental music to a degree uncommon to its peers. Whether through jazz-influenced bands like Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, or in out-and-out jazz from legends like Fred Anderson and Bill Dixon, the label has always been concerned with improvised and creative music.

Thankfully, Thrill Jockey doesn't just cater to jazz audiences with middle-of-the-road sounds. For the label's 20th-anniversary year, here are five selections which can please even the most discerning jazz fans.

The Jazz Side Of Thrill Jockey Records

Cover for Synesthesia

Chicago Underground Duo

  • Album: Synesthesia
  • Song: Red Gradations

This haunting piece combines soft cornet work from Rob Mazurek with vibraphone and percussion from Chad Taylor — the two members of a duo which, at times, has expanded into larger groups. The concept for Chicago Underground was born out of Mazurek's improvisatory summits at Chicago's Green Mill club. Though it began life as a large orchestra, over time it's pared down to smaller units. You can hear that minimalist approach in this song's introspective, resonant pulse.

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  • "Red Gradations"
  • Album: Synesthesia
  • Artist: Chicago Underground Duo
  • Label: Thrill Jockey
 
Cover for Back Together Again

Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake

  • Album: Back Together Again
  • Song: Leap Forward

Brace yourself for this music and experience the relentless percussive syncopations of Hamid Drake against the mystical, otherworldly sounds of Fred Anderson's saxophone. At the time of this 2004 recording, Drake and Anderson had been playing together for more than three decades. This piece nicely demonstrates their innate understanding of each other's styles of improvisation. Anderson's death in 2010 was a great loss for the Chicago Jazz scene, and this album serves as a wonderful record of his strong playing in his later years.

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  • "Leap Forward"
  • Album: Back Together Again
  • Artist: Fred Anderson/Hamid Drake
  • Label: Thrill Jockey
  • Released: 2004
 
Cover for Frequency

Frequency

  • Album: Frequency
  • Song: Portrait of Light

The earthy, natural sound of Frequency's "Portrait of Light" made it one of my favorite songs of 2006. There's a wonderful beauty to this music, with nods to the spiritual explorations of Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders and Charles Lloyd. This group of musicians — flutist Nicole Mitchell, multi-instrumentalist Ed Wilkerson, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Avreeayl Ra — deserves more attention.

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  • "Portrait of Light"
  • Album: Frequency
  • Artist: Frequency
  • Label: Thrill Jockey
  • Released: 2006
 
Cover for The Relatives

Jeff Parker

  • Album: The Relatives
  • Song: Mannerisms

There's a lot to like about this song, whether it's the ever-evolving pace or the tasteful and economical style of Jeff Parker's guitar playing, or the solid work on the Fender Rhodes from Avishai Cohen alum Sam Barsh (known as Sam Bar-sheshet at this point in his career). Most of all, it's the interplay and respect between the musicians in this quartet that makes the sound so pleasing here.

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  • "Mannerisms"
  • Album: The Relatives
  • Artist: Jeff Parker
  • Label: Thrill Jockey
 
Cover for We Are All from Somewhere Else

Exploding Star Orchestra

  • Album: We Are All from Somewhere Else
  • Song: Cosmic Tomes for Sleep Walking Lovers, Pt. 2

This music, commissioned by the Chicago Cultural Center for a performance at Frank Gehry's Millennium Park Concert Hall, tells the story of supernovas, the birth of stars and other cosmic events. Part two opens with a meditative groove: a swirling array of cornet, flugelhorn, baritone sax, flute and trombone. The Exploding Star Orchestra is a great example of the interconnectedness of the Chicago music scene; this recording features players from almost every song on this list, including composer Rob Mazurek.

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  • "Cosmic Tomes for Sleep Walking Lovers, Pt. 2"
  • Album: We Are All from Somewhere Else
  • Artist: Exploding Star Orchestra
  • Label: Thrill Jockey
  • Released: 2007
 

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