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Behind A Death In Queens, A Major Loss For The Avant-Garde Jazz Community

The death of Mike Panico, co-founder of Relative Pitch Records, shocked friends and colleagues throughout the avant-garde jazz scene this week.
The death of Mike Panico, co-founder of Relative Pitch Records, shocked friends and colleagues throughout the avant-garde jazz scene this week.

Earlier this week, an array of news outlets in New York City reported a macabre discovery: The body of a 53-year-old man was found floating in a Queens marina, fully clothed, with chains wrapped around his legs. The body was noticed by a passerby along the shoreline of the World's Fair Marina in Flushing Harbor, near Citi Field, around 9:15 a.m. Tuesday.

A New York Police Department spokesperson confirmed those details to NPR on Thursday evening, along with an official ruling that the death was a suicide, on the basis of a note left behind. The spokesperson also confirmed the name of the deceased: Michael Panico, of Jackson Heights.

In the news, that name was a simple fact. But it carries startling resonance for many musicians in the avant-garde jazz community, who know Mike Panico as a co-founder and co-owner of Relative Pitch Records, an independent record label with a track record of rugged excellence.

"I am in complete shock," said pianist Matthew Shipp, expressing the sentiment of dozens of prominent artists who have released albums on the label. Speaking of Panico, Shipp added: "He had a broad, broad knowledge and taste of music — he had complete respect for musicians and the process we went through to make the CDs."

Relative Pitch is a small label that has made a big impact in avant-garde and free-improv circles, with more than 65 albums that cover an impressive range of style. Founded by Panico and Kevin Reilly in 2011, the label fast became one of a handful of independent outfits that faithfully document the contemporary scene. That scene is global in its sprawl but close-knit in its social relationships, amplifying the tragic jolt of Panico's death.

The label's roster includes some of the most acclaimed artists in the style, like guitarists Mary Halvorson and Susan Alcorn; bassists Joëlle Léandre and Michael Bisio; and saxophonists Evan Parker, Vinny Golia and Matana Roberts. The celebrated guitarist Bill Frisell is featured on two Relative Pitch releases: Just Listen, with drummer Joey Baron, and Golden State, with bassist Greg Cohen.

The most recent release on the label is Utter, by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey, who have two previous duo albums on the label. In an email, Laubrock said she last saw Panico at one of her performances in New York, two days before his death.

"He smiled and waved at me, and in retrospect I wish I had had a moment to talk to him," she said. "The news of his death has shocked me to the core and highlights how little we often know about people we interact and work with. It makes me realize yet again that one should not make any assumptions about anyone, and not take each other for granted."

Cornetist and composer Kirk Knuffke, who has made several albums for Relative Pitch, described Panico as a close friend. "He and I met all the time for a beer and we would trade CDs," Knuffke said. "He also constantly kept a bag of things he knew I'd like."

Knuffke added that he and Panico had just gone to see an experimental show in New York. "And I just exchanged texts a few days ago because he had just produced a Michael Bisio Trio [album] that I played on and we were talking about a new CD of mine he wanted to do."

Panico worked by day as archives manager for Sony Music Entertainment, providing document research on projects ranging from André Tchaikowsky's Complete RCA Album Collection, released this year, to CTI Records: The Cool Revolution, from 2010.

Bruce Gallanter, a co-founder of the Downtown Music Gallery, one of the world's leading record stores for avant-garde music, remembered Panico in a note to his mailing list on Thursday evening. "It seems so hard to believe that he would commit suicide when he had so many things to look forward to, so many projects he was working up to the last day," he wrote. "Everyone that knew him well, loved him and cherished his positive spirit." (Gallanter further noted that he and composer John Zorn would be putting together a memorial concert in the near future.)

Reilly and Panico forged a bond roughly a decade ago as volunteers at The Stone, John Zorn's nonprofit performance space, which then occupied a spartan room in the East Village. Both were inveterate concertgoers with exploratory tastes, and they decided to form Relative Pitch as a labor of love and a manifestation of their mutual enthusiasms.

"I fully intend to keep the label alive," Reilly said in an email, "but out of necessity I will be cutting back some. There were two of us, both working full-time jobs, and the label probably required the work of four people but we managed to pull it off between us. But this is definitely not the end of Relative Pitch by any means. And I have no doubt that he would have wanted our work to continue."

Shipp, like several other musicians I contacted, described Panico more as a colleague than a friend, but emphasized his inexhaustible passion for, and devotion to, the music. "He always seemed positive about his mission," Shipp said, "though he was often down about how hard the jazz market was."

Knuffke alluded to the same difficult market conditions: "He was a true believer in music and decided to start a label even at a time when he knew it wouldn't make any money."

Five years ago, Relative Pitch was the subject of a label spotlight in The New York City Jazz Record, and Panico offered his own thoughts on the subject: "This label is another way to serve the music that we admire."

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