International Anthem Recording Company

In the span of less than ten years, Scottie McNiece and David Allen’s Chicago-based label International Anthem have built a tight-knit musical community around the idea that jazz is a vital and relevant component of contemporary music. “Component” is the key word here: less traditionalists or preservationists than upholders of an evolutionary approach to improvised ensemble music, they’ve taken great pains to both pay proper respect to their predecessors and to build on those predecessors’ principles in a more genre-agnostic sense. Think about the pivotal non-profit musical collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians that preceded them in their home turf by fifty years: this was (and remains) an organization that holistically embraced music, art, education, and sociology, all while being committed to finding the new and the transformative, with collective brainstorming and communication honing each individual’s discoveries. Now, where could the inspiration of a precedent like that take a more contemporary musical collective — one that originally started with a couple of punk rockers on the outside looking in?

International Anthem’s magnanimous sense of music-as-community was built in part on McNiece and Allen’s experiences with the DIY grind of live-band recording and touring. Shortly after moving to the city from Bloomington, Indiana in 2009, McNiece had become fascinated by Chicago’s strong yet still comparatively under-the-radar avant-jazz scene, and soon found himself in the fortuitous position to help cultivate a scene he was still in the process of learning about. Working at River North neighborhood establishment Gilt Bar took him on a path from in-house playlist cultivation to booking live acts for the venue’s basement offshoot Curio, and his networking and attraction of artists like Jaimie Branch, Nick Mazzarella, and Rob Mazurek would prove to be enough of a spark to ignite the possibility of starting a label dedicated to a collective vision of improvised music. In December 2012, a weekly stand of shows featuring a trio of cornet player Mazurek, bassist Matt Lux, and drummer Mikel Avery gave McNiece the window to try his hand at recording some sessions, and it was the last one that made the cut; Allen, already an experienced sound engineer, recorded the show to four-track tape. And while it took two years and a Summer 2014 Kickstarter campaign to gain their footing, that show would eventually earn International Anthem’s first catalog number as Alternate Moon Cycles when it dropped that December.

From there, their approach would be simple yet distinct: record sessions by musicians who were connected to avant-garde jazz and improvised music, interfere with the visions of those artists as little as possible, give those releases a bespoke, visual identity-heavy object d’art packaging that added an element of timeless permanence, and adhere to a philosophy that aimed to appeal to listeners who were more curious than intimidated by the idea of “complex” music. It’s that latter element, the belief in a largely younger audience more open to new things than they might otherwise be given credit for, that made International Anthem resonate; that they first planted their feet at a time when both independent record labels and experimental music were both considered untenable money-losing risks only reinforced their art-over-commerce aims.

The label-as-family focus not only proved to be a good foundation for International Anthem’s sustainability, it strengthened the local avant-jazz community and fostered the sense of interpersonal collaboration and communication necessary for the kind of exploration they were encouraging. Many of the members of the roster had already found patronage in McNiece’s venue bookings, like drummer/bandleader Makaya McCraven, who honed and refined his more experimental tendencies during a residency at the Bedford in 2013-14, shortly before International Anthem was founded. Those early inspirational recording sessions for Mazurek and McCraven drew further attention from a longstanding figure in the Chicago scene — AACM-affiliated guitarist Jeff Parker, whose membership in Tortoise had made him post-rock royalty and whose occasional participation in McCraven’s Bedford shows provided a powerful co-sign. By the end of 2016 and the release of Parker’s first album for the label, The New Breed, the quality-over-quantity catalog of International Anthem had produced a handful of can’t-miss gems from a small core of artists — just the early wave of a burgeoning scene, but enough to put them in the jazz-revival conversation as a lower-key Midwest counterpart to more established purveyors like Brainfeeder. 

In valuing that particular openness of collaboration as the catalyst for growth, International Anthem found a powerful means to expand their enthusiasms from a DIY “here’s what our cool friends are doing” venture to a thriving indie — one that proves you can still make a living beyond the margins of conventional popular music if you’ve got the right support structure. If their releases have grown more eclectic over time, engaging with improvised music ranging from spiritual and free jazz to ambient electronics and post-psychedelia, that’s by design. After all, you can’t rightly put the word “international” in the name of your label and risk sounding provincial. It’s the sound of Chicago, but there’s plenty of transplants amidst the locals; it’s the sound of contemporary ideas about improvised music, but rooted in the knowledge of previous generations’ groundwork; it’s the dynamics of live-band jazz, but taking that approach in limitless post-genre directions.

Where Future Unfolds cover

From former frontman of art-punk stalwarts Trenchmouth to polymath pillar of Chicago’s improv scene, Damon Locks’ career has led him to cross paths with so many different revolutionary musical thinkers and creators that his presence in International Anthem’s jazz-conversant community was practically a given. (In fact, his visual design sense and his artwork for releases like Nick Mazzarella Trio’s Ultraviolet and Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die were integral to the label’s identity years before he cut his first session for them.) Where Future Unfolds couldn’t help but find that similar communal connection, too. The album began as a one-man sound collage project based around speeches of the Civil Rights era, but took on the input of additional musicians over the span of four years until culminating as a live performance with a 15-member assemblage of musicians, singers, and dancers. What came out of it is a record that maintains the inspiration of past musical and cultural movements into an uncertain future where anger and optimism aren’t mutually exclusive — and neither are the past and the present, where echoes of Archie Shepp’s early ’70s funky avant-garde and Public Enemy’s freedom-or-death intensity fuel a necessarily inspirational anti-doomer Afrofutrism.

But Only After You Have Suffered cover

More impressionistic and genre-fluid than most hip-hop-derived beat tapes, yet more tangibly headnod-driven and constructed around the possibilities of rap flow than your typical experimental jazz release, this breakthrough beatmaker-as-bandleader album by the Angeleno drummer Jamire Williams is an absolute must for people seeking out the trippier intersections of both worlds. There’s a stretch on But Only After You Have Suffered that speaks to a powerful pull between earthly concerns and spiritual epiphanies while using as many stylistic routes as he can find to get there, segueing from the sandblasted gospel-gone-rock dirge “Just Hold On” to the glow-voiced affirmations of interstitial “Take Time, Look Up (Jawwaad Speaks),” bridging its way into Fat Tony and Zeroh coolly muttering heavy metaphysical koans over one of the best beats Madlib never made on “Safe Travels.” By the time the second half’s reckonings with divinity sink in — especially with the respective voices of Corey King and Lisa E. Harris piercing bright rays through the trembling melodic haze of “For the Youth” and “Pause in His Presence” — you’re left with an experience that feels intensely personal just off its idiosyncratic daring, but inviting for that very same reason.

Alternate Moon Cycles cover

It’s hard to think of a more daring and singular album for International Anthem to stake their potential existence on. The live recording at Chicago club Curio that got the label rolling in the first place, this December 2012 show led by cornet player Rob Mazurek is an exercise in attention-demanding ambient, the kind of minimalist yet prismatically dense impact that earned his playing the same Mark Rothko comparisons as the multidisciplinary artist-musician’s own paintings. Meanwhile, the near-rhythmless but subliminally propulsive drone supplied by bassist Matt Lux and organist Mikel Patrick Avery gives the two-part compositions of Alternate Moon Cycles a waxing and waning, tide-turning roar.

Kudu cover

Trumpeter Jaimie Branch and drummer Jason Nazarny played together in a number of bands dating back to their shared time studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, but their first autonomous superduo effort as Anteloper reveals their rapport to be a particularly strange one. The characteristic ebullient intensity of Branch’s playing and Nazarny’s mutably taut drumming are augmented by a collection of synthesizers that give everything a sort of queasily claustrophobic, all-enveloping electronic throb, like a video arcade where the games are all competing to be the noisiest. If that throws listeners off, good — the result is an exercise in sleight-of-sound that delivers frequent emotional and tonal curveballs, peaking in the staggering collapse-build-destroy dynamics of “Ohoneotree Suite."

Universal Beings cover

What a difference a few years and a burgeoning musical community can make. Where In the Moment, his first album for International Anthem, gathered a collection of his live performances for later dissection and reassembly, Makaya McCraven’s approach on Universal Beings was to create a communal exposition that spread his concepts across four different ensembles in four different cities, and take in what they give back in the process. Which, in both cases, is a lot — in physical form, it’s four LP sides; in thematic terms, it feels like four different LPs. But that leaves you with a lot of different threads to follow and modes to explore: reflective and spiritual in the vibes-and-harp-laced Queens session, bristling with percussive restlessness in Chicago, basking in Rhodes-soaked post-acid jazz in London, and glowing with IDM-meets-neo soul low end praxis in L.A.

Panamá 77 cover

If Dos Santos, the band that Daniel Villarreal plays drums for, parses their Latin-diaspora music through a funky psych-rock context, his solo debut finds a more nebulous sense of style to build around his vision of jazz-derived improv. But while you could spend a lot of space playing influence/redolence connect-the-dots — some ’60s Chico Hamilton Latin jazz here (“In/On”), some mellow g-funky “Summer Madness”-mode Kool & the Gang there (“18th & Morgan”), shades of cumbia, salsa, and reggaeton-derived grooves just about everywhere — it’s Villarreal’s ability to put rhythm first and let his ensemble players piece together the signifiers as they go that gives Panama 77 the feeling of wide-open joy and the possibilities of cross-cultural musical evolution.

Resavoir cover

By the end of the 2010s, the idea of starting on a structure of sample-based loop sketches and bringing in live musicians to riff off them had become a vital means of expanding on the possibilities of jazz as both a compositional medium and a form of communicative ensemble performance. Trumpet and keyboard player Will Miller serves as the de facto bandleader on this hybridized project, a take on instrumental hip-hop-fusion beats that’s more hi-fi and hard to pin down than the norm. On Resavoir, the blue-sky cheer of ’80s Japanese city pop and smooth jazz (“Resavoir”) aren’t too far removed from the spiritualism of Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders (“Taking Flight”), and both modes streamline nicely into warped-yet-graceful analog synth explorations (“Plantasy”) and skittery, playful, bright-brass glitch-hop (“Woah”).

Ultraviolet cover

An early fixture of the live shows that Scottie McNiece booked in Chicago prior to co-founding International Anthem, alto sax player Mazzarrella’s trio subsequently released one of the label’s earliest visionary statements in Ultraviolet. Described by the label as “a thoughtful elaboration of formal free jazz,” it’s a collection of performances that can go from familiar modes to surprising diversions in an instant: opener “Neutron Star” lets the exclamation points fly like Jackie McLean in its post-bop outbursts, and his phrasing on “Outlier” and “Fossil” is only matched in its disarmingly disorienting flightiness by his unfettered intensity. The rhythm section keeps the dynamic conversational, too; Frank Rosaly’s palpitating explosions behind the drum kit and Anton Hatwich’s scattered-thundershower bass runs blister in the solo spotlight but cohere even more powerfully when they ricochet off Mazzarrella’s rapidfire fusillades.

The New Breed cover

Parker took to the International Anthem community with such a direct ease that it’s easy to forget what a detour he was making with his first solo release for the label. Partially inspired by his relocation from Chicago to the Brainfeeder-fueled Los Angeles electronic/beat/jazz scene and its Madlib/Dilla-indebted sense of post-boom-bap sample-flip production, Parker excavated a handful of his old first-draft beatmaker exercises and built a new ensemble-cast recording around a hybrid of improv and loop-structured music that gave his guitar playing new dimensions to explore. Opener “Executive Life” is one of the most beautifully off-kilter things he’s ever done — big-band horn samples struck with Jello-kneed inebriation lope across lux-upholstered bass before receding beneath Parker and sax player Josh Johnson’s chirpily sly interplay — an approach done to mellower, subtly more melancholy effect on the Aretha “Day Dreaming”-interpolating “Jrifted.” It’s also a pleasure to hear him air out his emotively graceful playing on simpler, more spacious pieces like the murky soul-jazz groove of “Get Dressed” and the syrup-gloss amble of “How Fun It Is to Year Whip."

Chicago Waves cover

With their participation in the Los Angeles sessions for Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings, L.A. jazz/beat scene musicians Carlos Niño & Miguel Atwood-Ferguson were already important participants in International Anthem’s extended community well before their first dedicated release for the label. Chicago Waves just made it official: originally performed in November 2018 as an opening set for a Jeremy Cunningham show at International Anthem’s HQ Co-Prosperity Sphere, this 44-minute one-take off-the-cuff show-stealer features drummer/soundscaper Niño and violinist/SFX helmsman Atwood-Ferguson sculpting a stunning blend of drone, ambient, and spiritual jazz that could technically be called “minimalist” if its mere presence didn’t feel so direct and enveloping, like a looming edifice of unmediated beauty that you could actually live in. It’s music as tactile embrace as much as it is an emotional meditation.

Logos cover

This breakthrough LP by Chicago Latin-psych band Dos Santos is oddly underappreciated, in part because of its unusual place in the catalogue of International Anthem — it’s a comparatively straightforward kind of rock-adjacent record for a label more associated with the region’s avant-jazz scene. But it’s a big community, and there’s plenty of room for an improv-conversant group like this that’s capable of such a potent mixture of cumbia, acid rock, brown-eyed soul, funk, and the occasional foray into Afrobeat (check out Antibalas’s horn section on the title cut). Logos sounds like a sprawling, diasporic dissertation on what “Latin music” is able to be, with so many routes that stretch from tradition to hybridization and reinvention (“Córdva” as doom salsa; the winking “El Condor Pasa” feint/reclamation in “Purísima”) that by the time the soaring sweep of closer “(You Are) My Revolution” hits, it’s easy to hear the fearlessness in Alex Chavez’s voice, clear as day.

Step On Step cover

For a label so focused on the here-and-now potential for contemporary jazz and improvised music, it might seem a little counterintuitive for International Anthem to put out a Numero Group-style archival excavation of a beloved cult artist’s home recordings from half a century ago. But when the cult artist is Charles Stepney, the transformative Chicago-rooted producer/arranger/songwriter who helped shape the sounds of psychedelic-soul greats like Rotary Connection and Earth, Wind & Fire, that’s an exception to be thankful for. Beyond the novelty of hearing future iconic hits in nascent 4-track one-man overdub mode — the demo for EWFs “That’s the Way of the World” and its synth-burble/drum machine atmosphere makes for a remarkable surprise — these stripped-down yet lively keyboard-heavy recordings let you clearly hear the worldly, Stevie-rivaling melodic sensibilities that underpinned the more baroque and orchestral arrangements in his studio work. It’s tempting to imagine and wish for a world in which previously-unnamed instrumentals like the summery-yet-wistful “No Credit for This” or the prog-soul euphoria of “Funky Sci Fi” found their culmination in a fully finished studio project, but even in prototype form the optimistic uplift of Stepney’s compositions is more than enough to carry the music. And what Step on Step lacks in lyrics and vocals — or at least the vocals of greats like Minnie Riperton or Maurice White — is easily made up for by getting to hear his daughters reminisce over how the music made by their gone-too-young father played such an important role in their lives.

In the Moment cover

This collage of various setpieces from McCraven’s yearlong-running stand at Chicago club The Bedford is an odd yet welcome intersection of free jazz exploration and after-the-fact tape manipulation and sample-flipping. Hypnotic grooves that roll like hip-hop beats can abruptly warp into ambush improv soloing (“The Jaunt”), refract upon the riff-on-a-sample-of-a-riff line-blurring of acid jazz and neo-soul production (“Slightest Right”), or sink into a post-rock haze where metronomic lock-tite drumming gives the solos plenty of space to peek into every corner — i.e. guitarist Jeff Parker ambling cheerfully on “Just Stay Right There”, vibes player Justefan rhythmelodic fencing with the hi-hats on “First Thing First,” or the lost-child cry of Marquis Hill’s trumpet in “Time Travel”).

ISM cover

Jazz is a language with countless dialects, and Junius Paul speaks all of them. The bassist is capable of playing with a certain elemental directness that never makes the physicality of his musicianship an afterthought, and his role shift from veteran sideman to bandleader here lets all the avenues of his expression out. The relentless tumult of opener “You Are Free to Choose” is music as colossal natural force majeure that leaves absolutely nothing that follows as uncharacteristic — you could go anywhere from there, and in the two and a half years these sessions span, Paul traverses Sun Ra-in-repose quietude (“View From the Moon”), pugilistic soul-jazz of a boom-bap bent (“Baker’s Dozen”), flesh-and-blood percussive Afro-minimalism (“Fred Anderson and a Half”), fast-forward hard bop that hits like McCoy Tyner gone thrash (“The One Who Endures”), and a glorious crash course in everything that made electric Miles amazing (“Spocky Chainsey Has Re-Emerged”).

Arrebato cover

Asheville, North Carolina math rockers Ahleuchatistas started out as a trio in the early 2000s, but had swapped out drummers and pared down to a guitar (Shane Parish) and drums (Ryan Oslance) duo by the time they’d hit the ten-year mark of their career. For the unwary, their evolution’s a little tricky to parse; they’ve careened from Beefheart-conversant prog to a sort of self-contained genre-agnostic mutation that lets the rhythm-warping instincts hit first and the classifications fall where they may. But Arrebato is one of those late-career refinements by a band accustomed to pulling off the unusual, making it a surprisingly effective entry point for neophytes. It’s energetically freeform but almost telekinetically tight, and in love with the possibilities of both complexity and directness, with pieces like the motorik-throws-a-rod rhythmic subterfuge of “La Faena” and the hyperspeed oscillations of “Sundowning” using their considerable virtuosity as the pretext to clobber you with joyful noise.

Fly or Die cover

Jaimie Branch was handpicked by International Anthem to cut a session for them after helping put together a Nick Mazzarrella show in New York, and quickly became one of the label’s standout artists with Fly or Die. Not that she was alone in this, of course — the power of Fly or Die comes from her quartet’s fluidity, with Tomeka Reid’s tendon-straining cello acting as the heavy, foreboding foil to Branch’s brightly exclamatory playing and the Jason Ajemian/Chad Taylor rhythm section doing just as much to roil up the chaos as they do to uphold the structure. Coolly intense in their confines one moment (the skitter-stepping trap-jazz of “Theme 001”/"Theme 002”), then sprawling in the negative space of overdubbed corrosion (“Leaves of Glass”) or exploding as unpredictable as the weather (“The Storm”), this is a newly liberated bandleader and her players throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks — only to find out that the force of their efforts just knocked the wall over completely.

The Oracle cover

Recovering from a brain tumor and disconnected from her day job, Angel Bat Dawid spent much of 2014 stuck inside her own head — though as locales go it at least served as a place where she could stay grounded and focused between her trips to London and Cape Town. In any case, the itinerary proved enlightening, and the music she recorded during this period — all recorded on her cell phone, and the vast majority of it performed and overdubbed solo — passes along her revelations with measured grace and spiritual directness. The clarinetist’s gorgeous electric-piano-laced rendition of Dr. Yusef Lateef’s “Destination,” the Arkestral hymn “We Are Starzz,” and the stunning, anxious meditation on Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs’ poem “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” meet that on-the-move simplicity of its recording methods with the weight of a long-ruminated series of thoughts spoken aloud for the first time. And “Capetown,” her one collaborative piece with drummer Asher Simiso Gamedze, reveals that when there’s another person in the room the sense of spontaneity can make for some spirited communications.

Force Majeure cover

The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on live music is going to take a long, long time to feel distant enough to fully dismiss, but it’s still remarkable to consider some of the work that was able to permeate the lockdowns and restrictions just by giving some restless artists a new context to create in. Bassist Dezron Douglas and harpist Brandee Younger chose to broadcast their own Harlem house-bound musical transmissions through a recurring weekly livestream that found solace in reflective yet lively-played standards from Joe Raposo (“Sing”) to the Coltranes (John’s “Equinox”; Alice’s “Gospel Trane”) to Kate Bush (“This Woman’s Work”), strength in the reinforcement of Black-led art, and connection to an audience that only proved distant in the physical sense. Essential work in every sense of the term.

Irreversible Entanglements cover

It should tell you nearly everything you need to know about Irreversible Entanglements’ vision of liberation that they formed to play a Musicians Against Police Brutality event and only grew more furious from there. Fronted by rapper/poet Camae Ayewa (a/k/a Moor Mother) and backed by a four-piece band deeply conversant in free jazz, the self-titled debut seethes with the kind of escalating, noisy tension that masks both a deep sorrow and a barely-holding-on exhaustion. Ayewa damns the systemic failures of American capitalism and the brutal omnipresence of racism (“Chicago to Texas”) and police violence (“Enough”) with the fervor of the angry young idealist and the depth of the longtime activist, scoffing at cruelties and injustice with a hard-earned contempt that meets the bleakness of the subject.

Suite for Max Brown cover

If The New Breed was Jeff Parker’s new-mode thesis — the announcement of a phase where beat-flipping and sample-based loops were components of his next big wave — Suite for Max Brown shows off the ease with which the guitarist (and, here, all-sorts-of-things-ist) can use those means for spontaneous, surprising ends. It makes plenty of sense from someone whose ability to sink impossibly deep into a riff can also make any little fragment of musical doodling into an instantly appealing earworm — even if it’s a micro-fractured sketch less than two minutes (electric piano/kalimba elegy “Del Rio”), or one (the curious mix of samba percussion and chirpy Moog-alike melody on “Lydian, Etc.”), or half (Donuts-esque Otis loop “C’mon Now”). Follow him deeper — in “Build a Nest,” the nu-neo soul ode to grounded reflection he did with his daughter Ruby on vocals, or tributes to the sounds of Coltrane (expressively glimmering through “After the Rain”) and Joe Henderson (“Black Narcissus” revamped as the head-nod “Gnarciss”) that filled his family home, or the titular matriarch that graces the cover and the name of the album’s elegantly strutting closer — and the technorganic synthesis feels as natural as walking.

Shfl