Ben LaMar Gay at Public Records, October 29, 2023. Image credit: NJ Smith

Standing outside Superior Ingredients, a nightclub in Brooklyn, this past January, I struck up a conversation with someone in line behind me. We could hear Makaya McCraven, the Chicago-based jazz drummer, inside the venue, but the guy behind me had never heard of him. We were taking in the Brooklyn Marathon leg of NYC Winter Jazzfest, and I’d just come from The Opera House where I’d seen Brandee Younger, a harpist, and then hurried over here to catch McCraven before Irreversible Entanglements, a liberation-focused free jazz collective, took the stage. 

At the time, I felt lucky to hear so many artists in one night that I was already familiar with. In retrospect, I realize that the reason was that each one of them had released records with International Anthem Recording Company—an ever-expanding small indie label from Chicago specializing in music reaching in all directions, though still rooted in some form of jazz.

I first discovered International Anthem during COVID-19. While I was sheltering in place in Minneapolis, I came across a record named Force Majeure, a harp and double bass duet album Younger and bassist Dezron Douglas recorded during the pandemic. 

I was stunned by how organic these musicians sounded, their two string instruments recorded on one mic by themselves in a Harlem living room. Reading the LP’s obi strip, I saw a quote from McCraven and became curious to hear him, too. More than a drummer, he’s a “beat scientist,” as biographies put it, and he gradually became famous for carefully stitching together live recordings of improvised free jazz from multiple shows, creating full albums that marry the spontaneity of jazz with the kind of collage and sampling techniques you’d expect of hip hop. 

International Anthem’s slogan is “keeping things tight,” and the label calls the recordings it produces “progressive media.” As International Anthem put it in the first issue of Tracing the Lines, the label’s official publication, “We want to think about and talk about music and art as an essential element of our history, to acknowledge our place in the continuum here in the present, and to contextualize the ways in which the artists we work with do just that. All with an eye on The Future.” 

A key example of the experimental spirit in the artistic community that International Anthem is documenting is the work of Alabaster DePlume, an English saxophonist, poet, composer, and activist. Last year, in producing the album GOLD, DePlume assembled a group of musicians to record in sessions that were both safe and spontaneous spaces, without preconceptions of what they’d be achieving, trying to capture relationships and honesty on the record. A built-in sense of collectivity, founded on trust with each other and the spaces between, reveals the dynamism that’s at the heart of my favorite International Anthem releases. 

When I saw DePlume in person this past September, his main instrument throughout was tenor sax. Oscillation is a big part of his playing, with plenty of vibrato and often in striking, spiraling bursts, like spring-loaded birdsong. He plays the horn cocked to his side at an angle, like Lester Young used to, and floats with his steps from left to right. It was interesting, watching this—how hypnotic it was, and how the rhythm drove the circling melodies. 

Between the music, DePlume gave a speech spoofing a kind of current trepidation that keeps many people from taking action against fascism. With the band harmonizing behind him, he playfully sang:

I was gonna fight fascism
of course I was! of course I was!
but I was angry with the other people fighting fascism
you don’t fight it in the right way!
and I don’t know if I can align myself with them right now.

Another International Anthem staple is Ben LaMar Gay. A cornetist and composer who’s a veteran of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago-based movement of free jazz musicians founded in the 1960s, Gay is fearless in musical expansion. I love his track “Music for 18 Hairdressers: Braids & Fractals,” a clear nod to the American minimalist tradition: it’s percussive, seamlessly layered, and as kaleidoscopic as its name suggests.

Alabaster DePlume at Elsewhere, September 22, 2023. Image credit: NJ Smith

On October 29, Gay, fresh off a tour in Europe, brought a quartet to Public Records, an intimate performance space in Brooklyn, as part of a quarterly residency International Anthem has with the venue. 

On the day of the show, as sound techs and Gay’s band set up the stage, the person standing next to me asked if I’d ever seen him before. I said no. “Brace yourself,” he told me. A lot was about to happen—brass, bells, wood flutes, keyboards and synths, electric drum pads, and so on.

When the quartet came on, Gay started the set by playing a muted cornet into a tambourine he held with his left hand. What followed was a pulsing admixture of free improvisations, asides of traditional reeds and percussion, chanting in rounds, and synths and effects that came and went. At the center of it, the band moved like one living organ, swelling in and out as they balanced distortion against clear, commanding tones. 

After the set, I briefly met Gay. I waited my turn to share words, because, as he’d tell me, when he looked around the room he saw many, many friends in the crowd—younger musicians tapped into the same vibrant community here in New York City. It was impressive to see: more grassroots energy, and a hopeful promise of what may come next.

NJ Smith is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research.