Inside GSI Studios

Burgeoning studio label facilitates creative freedom

Daniel Rovin and Austin White, a precocious pair of twentysomethings, have opened a studio label they’re hoping will breathe new life into jazz. Of course by now, “Jazz is dead” sounds like an old horror movie—once frightening, now foolish—which makes it all the more exceptional that the two have lured some of the music’s top brass to GSI Studios after opening in June 2011. For their part, Rovin and White aren’t fazed by the attention. “We’re just trying to make something new,” says Rovin. “In this music, that’s the oldest trick in the book.”

Peter Gannushkin

GSI Studios cofounders Austin White (left) and Daniel Rovin

Cornering the ninth floor of an unassuming Gramercy mid-rise, the door to GSI Studios opens into a control room-cum-man cave, where a mounted bear head (hatted, headphoned, wearing aviators, stogie dangling from its gaping maw) presides over a sophisticated dashboard of knobs, switches and dials, a bronze Beethoven bust, high-definition monitors, an overstuffed couch, a towering 24-track tape recorder, several wall-hung guitars and one gold-plated statue of a piglet. The décor’s feng shui spells out the GSI aesthetic, which is, in principle, both serious and not.

“It’s a big deal for us to not play into all the pretentiousness associated with this music,” explains White. As a matter of policy, they refuse to put any label on what exactly “this music” is, though adjectives like free, out, creative, improvised, aggressive and raw are on heavy rotation at the studio. Now in their mid-20s, the pair seems unlikely custodians of the jazz culturati. White, with his black “Death Rock” T-shirt, Viking-style beard and both arms sleeved in tattoos, looks closer to Maiden than Mingus, while Rovin, a diehard sports fan, cycles through a closetful of New York jerseys under a loose hoodie and a permanent backwards Knicks cap.

The two first met in high school, at the Fine Arts Center of Greenville County in South Carolina. “They were pretty inseparable,” recalls Steve Watson, one of their teachers at FAC. “They were always very motivated, really into playing at a high level. I remember them listening to all these different records, trying to figure out what was going on. Eventually, they got into Ornette Coleman and John Zorn and they started playing free jazz at restaurant gigs—you can imagine how that went over here in the conservative South.”

With a playful twang, he adds, “’Course, it was always pretty clear Austin and Dan were creative: I mean, they figured out how to do their senior year twice just to stay in the program.”

After high school, Rovin (a saxophonist) and White (a bassist) left Greenville together, enrolled at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music together and, one year later, dropped out together. As roommates, bandmates and now partners in the business of “making something new,” Rovin and White’s connection is pure musical destiny.

“GSI” stands for a piece of time-honored advice they received from Reggie Workman, a bassist of choice for Art Blakey and John Coltrane. “We played in this ensemble with Reggie and he used to stop us right in the middle of playing and tell us to give more, that we had to play harder, more raw,” Rovin remembers, half-grinning. “He’d say, ‘You got to keep your gorilla suit intact,’ and we’d just look at each other and be like, ‘Yeah, we should probably do that.’”

For Rovin and White, GSI carries the weight of a mantra: It’s a plea for sincerity and an exhortation to dare. “What it really comes down to is honesty,” says White. “Jazz is stuck in a rut because the small minority of people actually making money from this music are always looking for the next Wynton Marsalis, the next guy who’s going to make it presentable enough to sell. Here, we’re trying to build a place where musicians can do something genuine and not be pigeonholed into whatever some commercial label wants them to do.”

Rovin and White are comfortable with the presumption their label stands on—namely, that jazz needs saving. Call it the hubris of youth, but they’re not alone in their opinion. After a half-century of so-called modern jazz, some of the music’s highest exponents have declared the genre old hat. In 2011, the trumpeter Nicholas Payton published a caustic manifesto, “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” blasting the genre, in gnomic turns, as “an idea that died long ago … haunted by its own hungry ghosts … a marketing ploy that serves an elite few … cold, like necrophilia.” By comparison, White seems moderate when he says, “Mostly it’s just fucking boring, man.”

In June 2011, Rovin was working as a waiter’s assistant at Jazz Standard in Manhattan. One evening, after playing two sets with the band James Farm, the drummer Eric Harland and Rovin got to talking about music. Together, Harland, Rovin and Joshua Redman’s sound engineer, Paul Boothe, walked over to meet White at the studio. At the time, GSI was still under construction. “We’d only just gotten the equipment delivered that day,” Rovin remembers. “But Paul got it all hooked up for us and we started playing this free thing with Eric. We were in there for a while and afterwards, he was like, ‘Damn, you guys can actually play.’”

Harland began using GSI as an unofficial home base when he was in New York City and, one after another, musicians straight from the top shelf of the modern jazz scene began to trickle in: players on the order of Kendrick Scott, Oliver Lake, Julian Lage and Taylor Eigsti. Last August, Harland, Rovin, White and the trombonist Ben Gerstein recorded Limitless: GSI Sessions, Volume I. The record is 50 minutes of collective improvisation that often sounds like madness with a method. The record’s three tracks plunge, thump and wail; they are long and shapeshifting but, somehow, the center holds. Like city traffic, there’s music in the group’s ability to drive its blaring simultaneity in one direction: forward.

“Eric’s idea is to get these modern guys into playing free,” explains White.

Rovin follows: “A lot of them just play the same thing night after night—maybe it’s great, maybe it’s not—but this is the place for musicians to get out of their comfort zone and try to create something new. We’re not necessarily into free jazz exclusively, but improvisation is a great vessel for that.”

White closes the thought: “So, really, what we’re producing here are records—literally, just records—of how a musician’s mind was working in the moment.”

Harland elaborates a similar theme in his liner notes for the album: “Nothing brings musicians, from genres and worlds far apart, together as well and as simply as improvisation, a language we all speak in one form or another every day. With the GSI Sessions series, we aim to capture a moment of life that involves several musicians (some of whom have never even met) doing what they do best: creating.”

Rather than catchy compositions, each volume of the GSI Sessions offers a kind of musical seismograph, registering the pitches and rhythms of human consciousness unfolding with others in real time. Commercially, the model is unviable. Even dedicated fans of free jazz see most records as hour-long advertisements for the live performance. But, for good reason, Rovin and White measure GSI’s success in the studio’s Rolodex, not its bottom line. Their uncompromising push to knock the rust off jazz seems to have struck a chord in high places, and not only with straight-ahead musicians looking for a place to play free—private benefactors currently subsidize most of the studio’s operational costs.

From the virtuosic company they keep, Rovin and White appear to be well in reach of the gauntlet Charles Mingus threw down in his 1973 Letter to the Avant-Garde: “I’m just trying to say that it would be beautiful to hear—if there were such a thing as avant-garde—the best musicians play it.”

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