Label Spotlight:

Relative Pitch Records
By Ken Waxman

We both feel that every release has been a success,” says Kevin Reilly, co-owner with Mike Panico, of the New York area-based Relative Pitch (RP) record label. “I want to stay away from categorizing our releases according to the parameters of late industrial capitalist consumerism.”

Economic methodology aside, in the less than five years since it was founded, Relative Pitch has already put out 14 well-regarded CDs, featuring younger advanced players such as guitarist Mary Halvorson and trumpeter Nate Wooley, plus veteran free musicians including bassist Joëlle Léandre and saxophonist Urs Leimgruber.

Music fans from an early age, Reilly and Panico, now both 47, gradually evolved from attending rock shows to following traditional jazz to devoting their time listening to free improvisation. “Since 9/11 I listen almost exclusively to improvised music,” reveals Reilly. “I find Cecil Taylor calming and cathartic,” Attending on average of 20 concerts a month each, the two partners first met on line, then forged a friendship while volunteering at The Stone. Eventually they decided that releasing improvised music CDs would spread appreciation for the sounds they loved. “This label is another way to serve the music that we admire,” insists Panico. As for the name, as Reilly explains: “Most musicians have relative pitch, not perfect pitch.”

Taking care of a constantly active label like RP “is a full time job in addition to our other full-time day jobs that pay the bills,” adds Panico. Although Mike Sprigle does most of the label art and David Wight helps with marketing, no one works exclusively for RP. “We’re part of a community in NYC and try to use the talents that are here,” notes Reilly.

“The thing that’s different about Relative Pitch, and what makes it so special in my mind, is that the people that run the label are faces in the crowd of 90 percent of the shows you play in New York,” notes Wooley, who is featured along with guitarist Joe Morris and pianist Agustí Fernández on From the Discrete to the Particular. “It’s not an overt community building exercise for them to be at the shows and manage a label, it’s just simply a natural part of who they are,” he adds.

“What Kevin and Mike share is an unrelenting dedication to and passion for music, which is evident from the sheer number of concerts they attend,” declares Halvorson, who recorded with saxophonist Jim Hobbs and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum on AYCH’s As the Crow Flies and on Sifter with drummer Matt Wilson and corniest Kirk Knuffle. “What I really appreciate is the seriousness with which they went about starting the label, and the sheer volume of music that they put out,” she continues. “They certainly didn’t start slow. It seems every time I see Kevin – which is fairly often – there are another couple of new releases”

Explains Reilly: “The AYCH record came about after I saw the Taylor Ho Bynum sextet and told Jim and Mary they had great chemistry. Jim knew about the label and handed me the final mixes six months later.”

Practically each release has a different germination. For instance That Overt Desire of Object, by saxophonist Phillip Greenlief and Léandre, plus multi-reedist Vinny Golia’s Take Your Time with cornetist Bobby Bradford, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Alex Cline were existing sessions looking for a home. Other projects are more “hands on” as Panico describes it. For instance Two by alto saxophonist Jameel Moondoc and pianist Connie Crothers was organized in response to a request from the label. Another time, bassist Michael Bisio contacted them about making a CD. The result was Floating Ice with pianist Matthew Ship, with Panico in the studio as co-producer, involved in every aspect of the session. “As producers, they aren’t trying to control anything, they’re simply documenting artists they care about, and allowing a vehicle for those artists to express the music they want to express, the way they want to express it,” confirms Halvorson.

One anomaly in the catalogue is that Just Listen, drummer Joey Baron’s disc featuring guitarist Bill Frisell is RPR 001 even though it was just released. Baron had been promised that his would be the label’s first CD, but unforeseen delays held up its release until 2013.

That sensitivity to the musicians’ and audiences’ interests is another quality which radiates from RP and its founders. “The label is an extension of their love of the people they see almost every night out at the venues,” says Wooley. “They truly are missionary in their desire to get the music they think is transcendent out to people that don’t have the chance or impetus to go to six or seven shows a week in Brooklyn.”

With mostly similar music tastes, which Reilly describes as ranging from “minimalism to noise” Reilly and Panico don’t often disagree on what should be released. “Agreeing is usually not an issue,” notes Reilly. “If we don’t, each of us gets to release what he believes in.”

Like all other smaller label, what does hold them back is finances. “We put personal funds into the label each year with the goal that the income generated by the catalogue will pay for future released,” explains Reilly. “Each project is based on our budget and what the situation requires. There have been projects we liked that we had to pass on because of our budget.”

Besides CDs, most RP titles are also available as downloads, although as Reilly points out, “some artists aren’t eager to make their music available digitally. They spend a great deal of time getting things to sound a certain way and resist the music being distributed in lesser quality formats.” As for LPs, Panico counters: “While LPs are hip again, manufacturing and shipping them is very expensive.”

Rather than spending their money that way, the two attend as many shows as they can in the NYC-area and overseas and aim to release CDs by artists who impress them. “We both first heard each of our releases alone, in our homes, and felt privileged and excited to be hearing them. We want to get this art out into the world since, this music deserves to be heard,” states Reilly. “I like the idea that you could look at our catalogue and not know where the label is based. To paraphrase [pianist] Thollem Mcdonas: ‘this music has no borders’.”

—For The New York City Jazz Record November 2013