September 1997

Label Watch: Songlines

Vancouver (British Columbia) as a cultural enclave is North America’s final frontier: with its avid, freewheeling arts scene, ethnic crazyquilt, and open-minded sensibilities, you can feel those Pacific breezes whisper, “anything goes.”

That newer, keener city by the bay’s DuMaurier Jazz Festival presents its rainbow spectrum of bands in a hodge-podge of unpretentious venues—from tiny lofts to sprawling arenas, CBC studios to Victorian opera houses—to audiences of heterogeneous mix (age, gender, race, economics) and provenance (bored grungers, cowboy seekers, refined Asians, expansive mains/reamers). The festival’s approach seems awesomely intrepid to a visitor from Boston (where a perverse brew of indolence, apathy, racism, profiteering, negativism, academics, history, and politics poisons grassroots growth) until you realize that they’ve hand-raised this audience over 20 years.

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Tony Reif

Into this musical environment Tony Reif founded Songlines Recordings, a label of small bands (largely atypical trios and quartets) making challenging yet accessible music in dauntingly, flamboyantly eclectic styles. Fusions— rife within a catalog of under 20 CDs—include strong elements of Euro-art (or “nu-classics”), MidEastern, Balkan, Avant, New Age, Third Stream, funk & metal, SCI (spontaneous collective improvisation.) Press releases limn a genealogy of new jazz, with myriad bicoastal interrelationships, embracing the loft scenes of Seattle, San Francisco and Manhattan (Knitting Factory). Rob Reddy’s Honor System recently introduced blacks to the label, with fresh improve on gospel, blues, R&B and roots rock. Forward drive is keen in bands like those of saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli, Babkas’ sax/drum/guitar, guitarist Ben Monder, and Human Feel, an earthly/angelic sax-sax-drum-guitar of originals out of Boston. Tenor sexist Ellery Eskelin’s Jazz Trash (Andrea Parkins on electric keyboards, Jim Black on drums) recently played Boston’s ICA with tight-reined abandon.

Dave Douglas exemplifies a Songlines artist: on trumpet, he wittily mirrors today’s astonishing eclecticism; his bands present terrific diversity, ethnic intrigues, and ceaseless exploration. He’s made Songlines CDs with his Tiny Bell Trio (Jim Black, Brad Schoeppach) and a wild duo with Han Bennink; his diverse discography includes superb work with John Zorn’s Masada, Don Byron’s Mickey Katz Project and sextet, as well as Myra Melford’s Quintet.

Recent releases clue you into Songlines’ motley small-band agenda. Marty Ehrlich & Ben Goldberg, and Chris Speed all nudge sonic frontiers on clarinet and bass clarinet. Andy Laster intersects crossroads of music and literature by adapting the aleatory techniques, dry humor and muted colors of playwright Samuel Beckett. A work-in-progress pairs pianist Paul Plimley (he has a masterful solo piano CD out) with South Indian master percussionist Trichy Sankaran.

Which brings us to the name. “‘Songlines’ is the white man’s term for various song cycles based on the Ancestor/Creation myths of Australia’s aboriginal peoples,” explains Reif. “Each song is performed where the events it recounts take place in the Dreamtime—by rocks, pools, and other significant locales. The concept of these lines of song linking near and distant parts of one’s physical world with mythic, eternal realities intrigued me as an appropriate metaphor for my ideal label, which is one that would find connections between different kinds of music: music that is new and creative on the one hand but inspired by deep roots; music that bridges styles and forms, bound neither by conventional genres nor political boundaries—paths traced in the minds and hearts of the musicians and their listeners.”

Reif’s grounding in music (as listener and gamelan player) is colored by studies in literature and work as a cinematheque programmer and archivist. His forward leap with Paul Plimley’s enhanced CD is an outreach into other areas of audiovisual reproduction. Songlines uses state-of the-art technology (20-bit recording, enhanced formatting) to help the music say its best. Reif is looking into high definition audio (24 bit/96K), but is chary of sacrificing session spontaneity to the constraints of audiophilia.

A listener first and businessman second, Reif faces a tight market full of reluctant shop-owners; his determined outreach includes Web-working (DNA Multimedia, http: //www.dna.bc. ca) and avid cyberdialog with all manner of fan, shop, and musician via home site (treif@songlines.com).

A new allegiance with the Portland, OR distributor Allegro is expected to help the label gain visibility and make its releases more readily available at retail. An introductory anthology—available for $7 US with alternate tracks by Songlines artists and guests—makes a hardy earful for the intrepid. But—ah!—the listening is sweet and strange. With Beaudelaire, Tony Reif can say, “j’entends un lyrisme inoui.”

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