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Monday, November 11, 2019

The Impact of Astral Spirits Locally

By Keith Prosk

In 2014, the same year that Astral Spirits began, my listening had just begun moving beyond the bop and free jazz classics of the ‘60s and ‘70s into more contemporary improvised music. I only really became aware of Astral Spirits in 2016, first hearing the batch containing Rankin-Parker/Pierce’s Odd Hits, which is still a favorite to this day. And in 2018, when I wrote on some solos from the label, I still thought of it as just another budding local label that was pretty cool. Only as my scope of awareness in this culture widened did I realize that Astral Spirits has meant so much to so many for longer than I knew. It’s a special label for many reasons, from its curation and quality to an emphasis on new and budding collaborations and musicians, but I want to highlight its impact on its hometown of Austin, Texas.

Since its inception, Astral Spirits has cultivated local (and once-local) talent by promoting and providing a platform for musicians in Texas. At this time, these musicians include the sometimes Austin-based Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, the now Marfa-based RobMazurek (we’ll count it), Sarah Hennies, Shit &Shine, SSBT, R. Lee Dockery, More Eaze, Lisa Cameron, Claire Rousay, and Anáhuac (just Chris Cogburn). In releasing recordings from more localized musicians alongside long-time favorites like Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Ken Vandermark, and others, Astral Spirits gives them a larger stage, which in turn provides greater interest, greater investment, and hopefully more people who want to participate in the improvised music community in Austin.

Additionally, Astral Spirits’ partnerships with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten’s Sonic Transmissions and P.G. Moreno’s Epistrophy Arts performance series has brought more national and international talent through Austin, especially from Chicago. Providing more access to a wider range of performance techniques, styles, and aesthetics is crucial in drawing more listeners as well as developing practicing improvisers through exposure and experience. Austin has a long road to becoming the next Chicago or NYC, if that’s even attainable or desirable, but Astral Spirits has surely helped to grow the improvised music community here.

A lot of business values can more-or-less boil down to openness to new experiences (practically a requisite in this music and in this field), giving a damn (evident in Astral Spirits’ customer care and response, e.g. the uptick in audio quality after early complaints), and building community. A lot of businesses fail at the latter. From my perspective, Astral Spirits succeeds. And has been and likely will be a major player, alongside your local organizers, some press, and a few other labels, in promoting this wondrous music from top to bottom. For that, it’s a label worth celebrating.

Happy 5 years!