Jazz is essentially live music. Musicians spontaneously negotiate and renegotiate their relationships with one another, the material they play, and the audiences who journey with them. That’s not to say that recordings can’t tell us a lot about it—and in fact the evolution of recording formats maps pretty well onto the history of jazz. The brief playing time of 78s, which typically held one tune per side, drove a focus on pithy songs and required soloists to get right to the point. Long-playing albums gave musicians more room to make expansive artistic statements of all sorts. CDs helped push the jazz marketplace toward reissues and archival releases by using their even greater capacity to load up new versions of old albums with extra tracks and multiple takes; soon new generations of fans began to explore not only the canonical artists of previous eras but also all the might-have-beens. Digital files have made nearly everything available, but the recordings are also next to worthless from a commercial standpoint.
Cassette tapes don’t figure into this narrative, but they’re enjoying a revival among underground microlabels—and Astral Spirits, operated by Texan musician Nathan Cross, releases short runs of new jazz and improvised music on tape. In summer 2016, the label threw a weekend-long festival at the Hungry Brain, and this Thursday it comes to Constellation to celebrate two more tapes by a pair of Chicago-based ensembles. One is an eponymous blast of free-form noise by guitarists Mark Shippy and Daniel Wyche and drummer Ben Billington; the other, entitled Contra/Fact, is a wide-ranging blend of spiritual jazz and electronic grooves by veteran bassist Matthew Lux and his Communication Arts Quartet.
Cross’s history with Chicago stretches back more than a decade. “I actually lived in Chicago and worked at the Hideout for a brief stint back in 2006. I only lasted a year before coming back to Austin, but I did make a lot of good friends in that time,” he says. “My connections with the Chicago jazz scene started around 2010 or so, from a couple different directions. I met [bassist] Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten when he moved to Austin after his own brief stint living in Chicago, and he introduced me to a lot of folks as they toured through Austin. I work half the year as a music-production coordinator for SXSW. I’ve made connections over the years and started working other festivals in the off-season. I’ve been working at Pitchfork the last five years now—honestly that’s where I’ve met so many amazing Chicago players, like Mike Reed, Quin Kirchner, Steve Marquette, Charles Rumback, and Ryan Packard. My wife and I have always thought of Chicago as our second home of sorts, and we visit at least once or twice a year.”
Astral Spirits tends to release tapes in batches, usually four at a time, in editions of 150 to 175. Each tape comes with a download, which remains available for purchase through the label’s Bandcamp page after the cassettes sell out. A run of 150 copies usually costs Cross about $350, which helps explain why so many small labels have gravitated toward cassettes. Production costs for LPs are much higher (Cross says he can get 300 copies for about $2,500), and while CDs can be cheaper than tapes, that’s generally true only in larger runs with bare-bones packaging.
“I try to see the low overhead of tapes in a couple different ways,” says Cross. “It is definitely freeing, in the sense that you can stretch your dollars a bit further. You’re not sinking everything into the hopes of one big payoff, and that also plays into a conscious decision I made when starting the label: to see it as a long game. Also, I will say that releasing tapes was not entirely motivated by low overhead. I wanted to reach a younger audience, and people who wouldn’t necessarily care or listen to free jazz/improv. By presenting it on tape, my hope is that it could change the dynamics of how someone might interact with the music. There are a lot of stereotypes of a typical jazz fan, for better or worse—I’m just hoping maybe I can broaden the audience a bit by presenting it in a slightly unconventional manner.”
From the beginning, Cross’s long-term plan has involved releasing music on formats other than cassette. Astral Spirits has already issued LPs by the trio Icepick (with Nate Wooley, Chris Corsano, and Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten), Jason Stein’s collective Hearts & Minds (with Paul Giallorenzo and Frank Rosaly), and Joe McPhee. Coming next month is the label’s first CD, Chimeric Stoned Horn, a blast of music for piccolo trumpet and modular synthesizer by artistic polymath and former Chicagoan Rob Mazurek.
After living in the Chicago area or in Brazil for most of his life, Mazurek relocated to Marfa, Texas, last year, hoping that the environment would be good for his music and visual art. “I moved to Marfa specifically to have more space to think and create,” he explains. “It’s a town built on the ideas of Donald Judd. Judd is one of my favorite artists and thinkers, and to be around this specific energy and all that happens around this energy is special. The place is a 2,000-person small town teeming with intense artistic practices with gigantic skies and, close by, one of the best observatories in the world. And one more thing about moving to Marfa—no Chicago winter!”
Cross still seems a bit ambivalent about compact discs. “I’ve been hesitant to release anything on CD, because honestly I’m not a fan of CDs, and it wasn’t what I initially set out to do,” he says. “But now that they are almost as cheap or sometimes cheaper to produce than tapes, it just makes sense.” At any rate, he’s hardly abandoning his preferred formats, and Astral Spirits has several LPs and cassettes in the pipeline.
The day after Thursday’s show, two more tapes will come out: a woolly blowout by Arrington de Dionyso and Ted Byrnes and a relatively serene improvisation by Tatsuya Nakatani, Makoto Kawabata, and Henna Chou. Next month the label will follow it with Dunia, an album of varied duets between electric guitarists Thurston Moore and Umut Çağlar. And in early 2018 two LPs will arrive, one by veteran improvising partners Peter Brötzmann and Fred Lonberg-Holm and the other by garage rocker Obnox. “I’m asking artists to present their version of ‘free jazz’ or whatever that means to them,” Cross says. “It doesn’t always have to sonically fit our ideas of what we historically think of as free jazz. I mean, ‘free jazz’ is really just a title of an album that came out 55 years ago, right?”