This edition of the 5 Songs About: series sees us delve into the catalogue of the independent Chicago-based label, International Anthem. Boasting an incredible roster of leading, contemporary jazz artists, many of which waving that flag for Chicago themselves, the label has a slew of fantastic projects from names like Jeff Parker, Carlos Niño, Makaya McCraven, Damon Locks and so many more. In accordance with the label’s Bandcamp description, International Anthem seeks “to make positive contributions to the changing state of the music industry and to vitalize the demand for boundary-defying music” – it’s an ethos that the label have continued to champion through projects that position them as front runners in inspired and innovative jazz music. It’s been a real joy to pick five of our favourites from such a wonderful label so if you’re new to International Anthem, these are some great places to start…
1. ‘Escalator’ by Resavoir
‘Resavoir’ is the self-titled and debut album and project from trumpeter, musician and producer, Will Miller. Initially composed by Miller through a series of samples & loops before slowly introducing layers of different musicians into the proverbial gumbo – the resulting concoction boasts seemingly strong nods to a ’70s aesthetic but still forges gloriously ahead with its own multi-layered and kaleidoscopic sound. There must be a genuine sense of pride for Miller, and all involved, at the eventual release of this project with all the years that have been poured into it. ‘Resavoir’ is an absolute gem and one that stands incredibly tall amongst the year’s best. We’re moving ever-so-slightly away from the actual album for our song choice however – while the album features an excellent version of this song featuring guest vocals from Sen Morimoto, a bonus version supplied as part of the ‘Escalator’ single boasts a 10 minute instrumental version recorded live at Co-Prosperity Sphere in 2018.
2. ‘nuevo roquero estéreo’ by Jaimie Branch
Jaimie Branch’s ‘FLY or DIE II: Bird Dogs of Paradise’ sees trumpeter Branch add the tag of vocalist to her seemingly never-ending skillset which includes trumpet, synths and composition. The introduction of Branch as a vocalist serves to override any ambiguity regarding any of the very direct messages aimed towards the then-current Republican Presidency which contributes to a more honest and sincere recording. The album boasts high points from start to finish like the urgency captured throughout ‘Twenty-Three n Me, Jupiter Redux’ and the vibrant ‘Nuevo Roquero Estéreo’. To extend the experience and add a wonderful entry into the ‘FLY or DIE’ catalogue, there is also the release of ‘FLY or DIE LIVE’ which sees Branch and the principal players across both albums perform tracks from Parts I and II. Recorded in Zurich, January 2020, this brilliant nineteen-track setlist was indicative of a tour in full-force before it would ultimately be cut short due to the global pandemic that turned the world upside down.
3. ‘Autumn Pleiades’ by Rob Mazurek & the Exploding Star Orchestra
Initially having started life as far back as 2005, the Exploding Star Orchestra was created by Rob Mazurek to demonstrate the diversity of Chicago’s emerging and innovative talent within contemporary jazz. While Mazurek’s propensity for creating music within disparate realms from jazz to electronica is a renowned trait, the joy within ‘Dimensional Stardust’ is its just-the-right measures of each style which really come together to create something incredibly special. While songs like ‘Sun Core Tet’, ‘Galaxy 1000’ and ‘The Careening Prism Within’ celebrate these otherworldly excursions, strings by Tomeka Reid (cello) and Macie Stewart (violins) alongside Joel Ross’s vibraphone really add some beautiful depth and warm textures to songs like ‘Parable of Inclusion’ which almost ground the album at times, again, striking that perfect balance and the project’s scene-stealer in ‘Autumn Pleiades’.
4. ‘Atlantic Black’ by Makaya McCraven
Chicago-based drummer Makaya McCraven has long thrived off of the notion of collaboration. His seminal two-disc album release ‘Universal Beings’ was a shining example of such commitment demonstrated across a wildly ambitious project. With the recording of the album divided across four suites, McCraven travelled to New York, Chicago, London and LA in order to collaborate with revered names from each location. Artists including Nubya Garcia, Jeff Parker, Carlos Nino and Shabaka Hutchings were part of dream team level ensembles across each location that saw McCraven fully immersed into the joys of collaboration. McCraven’s subsequent follow-up release entitled ‘E&F Sides’ would later go on to house a further fourteen tracks recorded from those original sessions.
5. ‘Manos Ajenas (Touch You Every Day)’ by Dos Santos
Clocking in at 2 minutes and 34 seconds, this track from the Chicago-based five-piece’s debut album ‘Logos’ is nothing short of a high-energy, glorious number. Although criminally short, it’s a song that packs so much in to its brief runtime – spearheaded by a great vocal from Dos Santos frontman Alex Chavez, the track soars through its rich synths and an infectious guitar riff that is the best advertisement to the band’s International Anthem debut that could be put forward. With an album featuring contributions from International Anthem label mate Ben LaMar Gay and the Antibalas horn section, ‘Logos’ – although different to the more jazz-inspired projects that typically adorn the label – is still a beacon for innovative Latinx music rooted within a traditional cumbia-immersed aesthetic but still pioneering its own progressive new sound.