Pedro Moreno presents art that exists only in the moment and then vanishes into interstellar space. Sure, some of the music is recorded very infrequently, but for most of what the Austin promoter presents, you quite literally have to be there.
Under the name Epistrophy Arts, over the course of three to five gigs a year, Moreno is responsible for presenting hundreds of hours of, as the company puts it, “the finest in improvised music and adventurous jazz” since January 1998.
That’s not an exaggeration — over the years, Epistrophy Arts has booked such jazz titans as Peter Brotzmann, Hamid Drake, William Parker, Joe McPhee and Sam Rivers.
On Jan. 12, Epistrophy Arts brings to Blackerby Studios the Swedish-Norwegian quintet Atomic (Fredrik Ljungkvist on reeds, Magnus Broo on trumpet, Håvard Wiik on piano, Hans Hulbækmo on drums and Austin-transplant Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on bass). Atomic’s been kicking around for about 17 years, blending jazz, free improvisation and contemporary classical music. While mostly known for their own compositions, their 2018 album “Pet Variations” explores music from Brian Wilson, jazz saxophonist Steve Lacy, Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley and composer Edgard Varese. It’s the sort of balance between group-centered thematic exploration and individual improvisation in which Epistrophy Arts specializes.
In fact, 'twas ever thus — the first Epistrophy Arts show featured just such music from McPhee, Arthur Doyle, Susie Ibarra and Assif Tsahar at the now-extinct 33 Degrees record store in 1998. (33 Degrees co-owner Dan Plunkett co-owns the thriving store End of an Ear.)
“The first four or five shows, I guess, were at 33 Degrees,” Moreno says, “then moved over to Ceremony Hall, Victory Grill, a few other places.” These are the words of a man who has consistently found new rooms for his music as Austin has changed and gentrified and grown and become well-nigh undrivable in spots.
To hear Moreno tell it, not that much has changed in how he puts together the show from then to now, except for one thing. “We're much more prominent now; we've had 20 years, and people know about us," he says, "so I get a lot more proposals. There's a lot of cool stuff too that I just can't even do.”
In contrast, perhaps, to the stereotypical view of Austin becoming a little more square every day, Moreno says the audience for what he does has gotten larger and more into less traditionally structured sounds.
“The most significant thing is that a real solid community for underground, ‘out’ music has developed in Austin," he says. "There's a lot more activity, a lot more energy and a lot more variety."
Moreno also credits Austin musician Nathan Cross’ cassette label Astral Spirits, which has been releasing tapes and downloads of experimental electronic music and free jazz since 2014.
“That’s a new burst of energy,” Moreno says. “He's unearthed things and put out really underground music by some really young, very interesting folks from around the world. And he puts out three releases every few months. That's unheard of.”
If you’ve been hitting Epistrophy Arts shows for 20 years, you’re going to run into the same folks, but you’re also going to see people you don’t know. “There's a core group, but then there's just always new people just cycling through, in and out,” Moreno says. “College towns are, by nature, transient places, so we capture students and then they move on, but new people come here from places like Chicago, or Europe, or other big cities and find us. And people who come to see (guitarist) Fred Frith might not come to see the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble. We're grabbing different people with different interests.”
And then there’s always the internet. “Back when I started listening to this music,” Moreno says, “there were records that I thought I would never get to hear. And now I can just download them and I can hear some out of print record from 1968 that I never thought I would find.”
But as absolutely everyone in the live music business can probably attest, the internet taketh away as much as it giveth. “People are distracted by a whole lot more,” Moreno says. “You have a lot of content that you can get piped to your house, and people would rather do that go out and deal with parking and traffic.”
As for what’s coming up, look for shows this year from the psychedelic jazz trio Fire! with Mats Gustafsson, a duos show with saxophonist Peter Brotzmann and former Austin-based avant-garde guitarist Heather Leigh, and the all-star outfit Broken Shadows, which pays tribute to the music of the late Fort Worth-born jazz god Ornette Coleman.
Moreno shows no signs of stopping, even as Epistrophy Arts remains, with help from volunteers, essentially a one-man show.
“I think as I get older and as I maybe grow out of touch, it would be nice to have some young energy and creativity and a different sensibility to keep this fresh and keep it going,” Moreno says. “I do have to be aware of that, 'cause the goal is ultimately to build new audiences for adventurous jazz, and keep it going in any way I can.”
Why Austin is the Live Music Capital: Our guide to club residencies