The Chicago label International Anthem is best known as a jazz imprint, and a home for the city’s ascendant scene of experimental instrumentalists. But to view them only as such would miss the vibrancy of their whole endeavor. Since 2014, Scott McNiece and David Allen have quickly developed the imprint as a refuge for curious listeners of all stripes, releasing, as you might expect, bleating and unpredictable jazz pieces, but also all sorts of other elastic experimenters—from droney composers to arty rock contortionists to cumbia revisionists and a whole lot of others too. The unifying factor that I hear between all their disparate is the general disregard for borders between sounds and styles. Freedom is the message, which makes basically everything they put out worth checking for immediately.
In June, they released a new mixtape called Where We Come From (CHICAGOxLONDON Mixtape) by the composer and drummer Makaya McCraven that made that sentiment literal. Working with a recording of an improvisational London performance with a group of local musicians—including Kamaal Williams and saxophonist Soweto Kinch—he works with tapes and electronics to splice the recordings into these strange elliptical grooves. It’s a process he’s adopted in the past, doubled down on this tape by the fact that he got some producers back home and in London to get in on the remixing action, twisting the band’s discursive playing into new forms altogether. It’s a layered intercontinental collaboration at its finest, indicative of McCraven’s careful experimental approach, and in a broader sense, the general project of International Anthem.
McNiece and Allen underscore their borderless approach with this week’s Noisey Mix, a two-hour exploration of a sound and scene they’ve found themselves digging deep on recently, the UK jazz scene. They’re calling it “An Outside Perspective on UK Jazz” cognizant of the fact that thousands of miles away they aren’t approaching it with the eye of a local. Nevertheless they set out to put together a mix that puts “the island's creative music in a cross-communal, inter-generational, stylistically inter-sectional context,” which means Mercury-shortlisted youngsters live alongside Robert Wyatt jams and a whole lot more. It’s one of the coolest mixes we’ve been able to share through this series so far, so check it out below alongside a tracklist and an interview that digs into the history and philosophies behind the label.
Noisey: How are we meant to enjoy the mix? What's the perfect setting?
International Anthem: Enjoy this mix anywhere, anytime. But for reference, this one has been thoroughly field tested straight to the dome through Ultrasone headphones while traversing post-industrial landscapes on a vintage Univega bicycle.
Is synesthesia a real thing and if so, what color is this mix?
Sure, why not. This mix is a sort of gold color.
Was there any specific concept to the mix?
The concept is: An Outside Perspective on UK Jazz. Being newcomers, only two-ish years into our affinity for the jazz and improvised music sounds of London, UK, we were excited to take this opportunity to explore deeper and wider. Our hope was to put together a program that, first and foremost, flows, but beyond that, attempts to hear the island's creative music in a cross-communal, inter-generational, stylistically inter-sectional context. But again, being newcomers, regardless of any lofty intentions, the best we can call this program is "An Outside Perspective on UK jazz."
Do you have a favorite moment on this mix?
When Yusef Lateef gives a classy, warm-hearted introduction to the band of Londoners backing him up on "Blues from the Orient," calls them some of the finest musicians he'd ever worked with. That track is taken from the wonderful Live at Ronnie Scott's album that Gearbox just released, highly recommended listening.
Can you describe what it’s like being in Chicago’s jazz scene in this moment? I feel like I keep seeing and hearing people talk about how great it is to be there right now—but those mostly seem to be outsiders. What does it feel like on the ground?
We've only been involved in the Chicago jazz scene since 2011, so we're not entirely the most qualified to answer that question. But... from our perspective... Chicago jazz is indeed having a special moment. The well of talent here is as deep as ever, that doesn't seem to be anything new. Perhaps most excitingly, right now is... although the Chicago music scene has long been somewhat notoriously pocketed and tribalist, there are a lot of people who are collaborating across stylistic and communal lines, and from that, a lot of interesting new projects and recordings are surfacing. And there are definitely more venues supporting experimental music and jazz/improvised music in more places than there was when we first starting booking shows here 7 years ago. For a city full of hardworking, motivated musicians, the simple existence of spaces for people to develop their ideas/sounds certainly has a massive impact on output.
How did you all get into the UK jazz scene you document on this mix? I know you all just released that Makaya McCraven mixtape that’s an explicit link between Chicago and London, but is there anything else that you feel really links you, even just dispositionally?
It was an illuminating experience when we went out there to put on the CHICAGOxLONDON showcase last Fall. Really inspiring to see how jazz in the UK is popular in spaces where people like to move their bodies, dance, physically respond to the music.. The bond between performers and their audience is stronger than we've ever seen in the US. Even though we're also having a "special moment" here in Chicago, there is certainly a difference in the way jazz music is experienced, presented and received here. We're still mostly a sit-down or stand-still crowd here.
As far as the similarities, the links... yeah Makaya's new mixtape is an explicit link, a tangible testament to the collaborative kinship that's developed between our two places. From an outside perspective, that link might just seem like the eight musicians who play on that album, and/or the five remix producers who contributed after the fact. But really... There were so many creative people behind the scenes, musicians and otherwise, almost 20 of us from Chicago and that many, or more, from London, who were all really connecting, vibing, developing a deep philosophical and communal bond. And beyond the music, that entire community of people coming together is what made that album possible, and potent as it is.
It was a very natural, open, and easy working, collaborative relationship to create, gotta give those Londoners credit for making that possible, welcoming us in and being ready to do some work with us. They were cultural producers at their core, which I can say the same of a lot of the people we know and love and work with in Chicago. Don't necessarily want to speak to a broader, over arching cultural connection between Chicago and London in general, or Chicago jazz and London jazz in general, but we can definitely say that there is something very, very special in the culture developing between our International Anthem family and the family of artists and producers and presenters in London that we've had the fortune of collaborating with—Alexis and everyone at Total Refreshment Centre, Tina Edwards and the Worldwide FM family... shit we've hosted almost a dozen folks from UK in Chicago this summer already, for work and for play. The bond is real, the love is deep.
The International Anthem origin story is delightfully expounded upon in some other places, but one thing I’m curious about is another interview says part of what first drew you to jazz was that it reminded you of punk shows. Could you explain what you meant by that?
When we first started getting into the Chicago jazz and improvised music scene, most of the shows we were going to were setup, promoted and produced by musicians. Musicians were handling that role, of show promoter and producer, often while also performing themselves, and paying out all the dough to the other performers. Especially if some of the players were from out of town, they were giving them all the dough.
The whole economy of it was fundamentally the same as what we'd experienced as DIY promoters and musicians in punk bands, touring and playing and running show houses. Not to mention, the music was significantly more challenging, avant garde, difficult and often times offensive to innocent bystanders, and always delivered with a degree of confidence by the musicians, totally unapologetic and uncompromising. The sound was not only new to us, but just felt wayyy more "punk" than what we'd been hearing for years. We'd had enough of those four band bills of punk bands banging out the same two or three chord progressions on their electric guitars, regurgitating that same format over and over again. Free jazz just felt like the clearest way to reconnect with revolutionary sound.
Obviously you’ve released so many different kinds of music—and this mix spans a lot of different sounds as well—is there any specific spark that you look for? What qualities (emotionally or musically or thematically or whatever) really draw you in as a listener?
Genuineness is really the main quality we're listening for in music. If there's humanity in the heart of the sound, the style can express itself in many ways, and we'll dig. Craft and musicianship are also important to us. Our ears are always open for music made by musicians, people who've clearly put in some time developing their craft. And really, it seems those things are closely related, genuineness and craft. In music, and almost any art form, the higher the level of craft, the more lucidly the artist is able to communicate through their practice, hence making more a genuine expression more likely. But yeah... also, it could just be dope.
1. United Vibrations - “Twister”
2. Vels Trio - “40 Point”
3. Szun Waves - “At Sacred Walls”
4. Emma-Jean Thackray - “Howley”
5. Emma-Jean Thackray's WALRUS - “Baro Bop”
6. Ezra Collective - “Dylan's Dilemma”
7. Yazz Ahmed - “Bloom”
8. Dinosaur - “Forgive, Forget”
9. Richard Spaven - “Network”
10. Portico Quartet - “View from a Satellite”
11. Hector Plimmer & Drahla - “Eastern System”
12. Yazmin Lacey - “Heaven”
13. Wu-Lu - “Sailor (feat. Binisa Bonner)”
14. Hello Skinny - “Signs”
15. The Comet Is Coming - “The Prophecy”
16. Shabaka and the Ancestors - “Joyous”
17. Collocutor - “Disappearance”
18. Yusef Lateef - “Blues for the Orient (Live at Ronnie Scott's)”
19. Don Cherry & Orphy Robinson duet
20. Robert Wyatt - “Pastafari (feat. Orphy Robinson)”
21. Cassie Kinoshi - “8-Bit I: "Tetris"”
22. Evan Parker, Paul Haines & Robert Wyatt - “Curtsy”
23. TWELVES - “Long Time Traveller”
24. Theon Cross - “Trouble Trouble”
25. Alexander Hawkins Unit[e] - “For The People”
26. Tori Handsley Trio - “Rivers of Mind”
27. Binker & Moses - “The River's Tale (feat. Tori Handsley & Evan Parker)”
28. Matana Roberts - “Exchange (Live in London)”
29. Kokoroko - “Abusey Junction”
30. Nérija - “Valleys”
31. Louis Moholo Moholo - “You Ain't Gonna Know Me Cos You Think You Know Me”