by Morgan Enos for Grammys

Inescapable Progression: 10 Jazz Labels You Need To Know In 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic may have contorted jazz into an unrecognizable shape, but it was powerless to derail these ten brilliant labels from around the globe

It may take years to assess how much damage COVID-19 has done to jazz. Irreplaceable hangouts like D.C.’s Twins Jazz, New York’s Jazz Standard and L.A.’s Blue Whale are gone. When musicians did play live, they stood six feet apart, behind plexiglass walls or with their wind instruments in fabric sleeves(opens in a new tab). Others simply took it on the chin, sharpened their acting skills and slung their masterclasses on Instagram. 

Miraculously, none of these hardships hamstrung the genre’s forward motion. Because if you survey the recorded work of practitioners like Georgia Anne MuldrowAmbrose Akinmusire, Matthew Shipp, Miguel Zenón and the all-women septet Artemis—whether it was created before or during the outbreak—2020 was a terrific year for jazz. The recent output of Blue Note, ECM Records and other venerated labels is proof positive of this. Still, it’s not the whole story.

A handful of independent labels—some of them owned by musicians, others merely by zealous music fans—didn’t merely hang in there during the pandemic; they thrived during it. At least one popped up as the lockdown reached a fever pitch. And from TAO Forms’ emphasis on “out” sounds to Truth Revolution’s braiding of Latin and straight-ahead jazz to Whirlwind’s embrace of everything hip, these relatively young labels couldn’t be more stylistically diverse.

For Jazz Appreciation Month, let’s enjoy the music spilling forth from the Lincoln Center and other prestigious institutions. But let’s also lend our support to the small-scaled labels putting their noses to the stone during dangerous times. Here are ten jazz labels you need to know in 2021.

In March 2020, gigs screeched to a halt. That month, the drummer, improviser and composer Whit Dickey—who has been active in the downtown improvisational scene for decades—announced a new label with a distinct aesthetic and vision. 

“TAO Forms is a new recording label which will be devoted to contemporary free jazz of an elevated & enlightened nature,” the label declared in their inaugural Facebook post.

Their first offering was Matthew Shipp’s solo piano album The Piano Equation, killing releases by tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, drummer Tani Tabbal and Dickey himself have followed. 

If you’re curious about where the New York improv scene is going, keep an eye on Dickey and his co-conspirators. They weren’t only on the ground floor of this scene; they’re adding new pages to its story.

Biophilia is where nourishing music and planetary health are intertwined—even on the most mundane, granular levels. 

“I will be cognizant of my own resource consumption and environmental impacts,” founder Fabian Almazan wrote on the label’s website, proceeding to pledge to eat less meat, turn off unused lights and separate his recycling. All of this is to operate Biophilia with the flow of nature, not against it.

The label is a collaboration between Almazan—a celebrated pianist in his own right—and Jessica Wu, an environmental specialist and sustainability consultant. Accordingly, the lively music within—which often gravitates toward the experimental and improvisatory spaces—seems to propagate and twist like vines.

For quintessential Biophilia, check out bassist/composer Linda May Han Oh’s Aventurine(opens in a new tab), singer/composer Lara Bello’s Sikame(opens in a new tab) and The Awakening Orchestra’s volume ii: to call her to a higher plane(opens in a new tab).

If Biophilia is unconventional in its environmental mission, Truth Revolution aims to change the game from an economic standpoint.

“This record label is unlike any other,” its founders Zaccai and Luques Curtis described(opens in a new tab). “It allows its artist to remain the owner of their music and focuses more on the partnership with their artists.” As they explain, his philosophy extends to every aspect of the record-making process, from recording to promotion.

Take a look at their roster, and you’ll notice it splits the difference between traditional fare—like singer and multi-instrumentalist Orice Jenkins’ tribute(opens in a new tab) to Nat King Cole—and Latin gems like Andy González’s Entre Colegas(opens in a new tab). If either of those is your lane, seek out Truth Revolution immediately.

Truth Revolution is plugged into tradition and elderhood, too. Check out Triangular III(opens in a new tab) by the revered Jazz Messengers drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr., a crucial mentor to the label’s founders who tragically left us this year.

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