Jon Pareles reviews Thrill Jockey anniversary party:
- The urge to innovate mingled with 1970’s nostalgia during “Thrill Jockey Turns 10” at Irving Plaza on Thursday night. It was the first of three New York concerts — two at Irving Plaza and a sold-out show Saturday night at the Bowery Ballroom — celebrating the 10th anniversary of Thrill Jockey Records, an independent label of idiosyncratic and discerning taste that started in New York City and moved to Chicago in 1995.
The headliner for the Irving Plaza shows was Tortoise, an instrumental band that dips into minimalism, lounge music, jazz and rock. Tortoise topped the bill of a six-hour minifestival that included pumping new wave dance songs (Trans Am), glam-rock (Bobby Conn), pop-soul (the National Trust) and exploratory jazz (the saxophonist Fred Anderson’s trio and the Chicago Underground Duo). But none of the groups were content to stay within genre boundaries.
At a time when major recording companies are struggling to make a profit by betting huge promotional outlays on possible blockbusters, small labels like Thrill Jockey suggest a different model of modest expectations and sustainable careers.
Thrill Jockey, which was started as a one-woman operation by Bettina Richards, doesn’t court or depend on a mass audience. It shares profits equally with musicians; it doesn’t sign long-term contracts or impose deadlines; and it lets the musicians control their music, packaging and marketing. Through tours, press and largely noncommercial radio exposure, the label has managed to reach enough listeners who share Ms. Richards’s musical preferences. She likes bands that tickle the mind as much as the body, and Thursday’s bill revealed a penchant for bands that give their 1970’s heritage a parodic twist.
Tortoise’s pieces are simultaneously methodical and whimsical. A spaghetti-Western guitar tune or a balladlike vibraphone phrase would work its way into a minimalistic pattern, which made way in turn for a new, contrasting melody and another layered construction. Smooth lines rippled across stop-start riffs; instruments engaged in calm conversation or slipped out of their patterns for brief patches of improvisation. Tortoise’s precise constructions pretended to be a casual ramble through some unlikely byways…..