Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

Fresh Sound New Talent: Based in Barcelona, Fresh Sound came on the scene as a reissue label specializing in West Coast jazz. But in the early to mid ’90s, after several eye-opening trips to New York, label head Jordi Pujol launched his “New Talent” line, one of several labels under the Blue Moon umbrella, and began showcasing exceptional young Americans (and Europeans, expatriate and otherwise). At this point, familiarity with FSNT’s output is essential to any informed understanding of jazz in our time. All the more unfortunate, then, that distribution and promotion for the label remain so slim. (It’s gotten better, at least now there’s a website and even a modest ad budget.)

FSNT’s catalog is studded with gems like Chris Cheek‘s Vine, John Ellis‘s Roots, Branches & Leaves, Reid Anderson‘s The Vastness of Space, Gerald Cleaver‘s Adjust, and Omer Avital‘s Think With Your Heart, along with auspicious debuts by Miguel Zenon, Matt Penman, Brett Sroka, Marcus Strickland, Robert Glasper, Jeremy Pelt, and more. This is a label with no use for ideological litmus tests: both the New Jazz Composers Octet and The Bad Plus, polar opposites in nearly every respect, released their debut albums on FSNT. Kurt Rosenwinkel and Brad Mehldau, now major label stars, also did some of their earliest work here. Tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry is one of the label’s current leading lights.

Pujol, in addition, has helped set in motion a thriving exchange between the New York and Barcelona jazz scenes.

Ropeadope: This spunky young label has gained a reputation for exploring the links between jazz, hip-hop, electronica, and the “jam band” phenomenon. Label head Andy Blackman Hurwitz, formerly of Knitting Factory Records, had been working as the manager for DJ Logic, a leading figure in the turntables-meets-jazz domain. His efforts to get Logic signed were going nowhere, so he launched Ropeadope and landed a very helpful distribution deal with Atlantic. Logic now has two Ropeadope releases to his credit, Project Logic and The Anomaly. John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood, a frequent Logic collaborator, has become closely associated with the label as well.

Wary of being pigeonholed as a groove label, Ropeadope has attracted downtownish, genre-busting bands like Sex Mob and the Tin Hat Trio, as well as the club music collective Jazzanova. The label was also fortunate enough to recruit the popular eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, after his seven-album run on Blue Note came to an end. A number of interesting one-off projects have appeared on Ropeadope as well, including the Yohimbe Brothers (a Vernon Reid-DJ Logic duo) and the Philadelphia and Detroit Experiments (multi-genre albums pairing jazz, hip-hop, and studio musicians).

In May, the label sponsored a series of shows under the name “What Is Jazz?” at Brooklyn’s Southpaw club, all of which featured DJ Logic with rotating special guests. With productions like these, Ropeadope shows the potential to become a real cultural force, putting jazz musicians in front of young, dance-hungry audiences.

Sunnyside: François Zalacain, a Frenchman raised in Mexico, launched Sunnyside in the early 1980s not as a record label but as a broadcasting company. Its sole task: airing the Super Bowl for the first time ever in France. But Zalacain switched his focus to jazz records following a brief stint in the U.S. as an IBM systems engineer; he has remained in the States ever since. He got Sunnyside off the ground with outings by Harold Danko and Rufus Reid, Kirk Lightsey, Lee Konitz, and Jay Leonhart; he also debuted the Kenny Werner Trio with Ratzo B. Harris and Tom Rainey, a working group for 10 years that had not yet recorded. Another early feather in Sunnyside’s cap was Jerry Gonzalez‘s Rumba Para Monk, one of the most famous Latin jazz albums of the modern era.

Today, Brazilian vocalist Luciana Souza is the most celebrated artist on Sunnyside’s roster. Along with Argentinian pianist/composer Guillermo Klein, she typifies the label’s ongoing interest in jazz with a South American tinge. Sunnyside is also investing in what Zalacain calls the “New York new wave,” represented by the likes of pianists Deidre Rodman and Laurent Coq and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby. The idiosyncratic vocalists Jay Clayton and Meredith d’Ambrosio have also recorded extensively for the label. So has Michael Leonhart, son of Jay Leonhart, a trumpeter and Steely Dan employee who recently gave us Slow, one of the more offbeat treasures of 2003. His mother and sister, Donna and Carolyn Leonhart (both vocalists), made their recording debuts on Sunnyside as well.

Financially, Zalacian is breathing easier thanks to a distribution deal with the powerful Ryko, inked in April 2002. He has also set up a number of licenses with foreign labels, enabling him to bring to the U.S. superb music by Chano Dominguez, Steve Kuhn, Steve Lacy, the late Michel Petrucciani, and, courtesy of Universal France, the hard-edged, Minneapolis-based trio Happy Apple (featuring Bad Plus drummer David King).

Tzadik‘s Radical Jewish Culture: Founded by downtown impresario John Zorn, Tzadik (“righteous person” in Hebrew) maintains a number of different divisions. Its “Radical Jewish Culture” series has come to represent the ethnic tendency in modern jazz. The focus may be Jewish, but the results are multicultural. Titles range from Ben Perowsky‘s Camp Songs, an inspired recovery of melodies learned at Jewish summer camp in upstate New York, to Roberto Rodriguez‘s El Danzon de Moises, dedicated to the Jews of Cuba. Other noteworthy RJC bands include Anthony Coleman‘s Sephardic Tinge and Steven Bernstein‘s Diaspora Soul and Diaspora Blues.

Tzadik RJC album packages carry a fixed but highly effective design. The covers feature a simple photo or illustration, with the title centered inside a sleek, horizontal gold band near the bottom. The discs themselves are almost entirely blank, save for the album title and Tzadik logo (the Hebrew letter tzadee) stamped on the lower half. The artist’s name appears in back, on the gold-tone tray card, superimposed on a Star of David above the list of personnel. One has to look inside for the track titles, laid out handsomely in two columns, with the interior fold as a dividing margin. The booklet has an extra half-flap on the left side, creased and folded over; this contains writing credits, recording info, and acknowledgements, with a photo of the artist tucked away on the reverse.

Criss Cross: Like Fresh Sound New Talent, Criss Cross is a European label (based in Amsterdam) documenting some of the best and brightest young Americans. It has a respectable retail presence in the U.S., but little promotional apparatus to speak of. Label head and producer Gerry Teekens, a drummer and former professor of German, makes at least two trips to New York per year, knocking out as many as nine sessions in as many days. It’s a formulaic approach, but it works.

When Teekens launched the label in 1981, he focused on recording notable Americans who were passing through Holland—people like Jimmy Raney, Warne Marsh, and Johnny Coles. But soon he began to focus on new blood, signing younger artists like Brian Lynch and Ralph Moore. Looking back, one cannot but marvel at Teekens’s track record: Kenny Garrett, Steve Wilson, Benny Green, Bill Charlap, Chris Potter, Mark Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Orrin Evans, and Seamus Blake are among those who made either their debuts or their earliest recordings for Criss Cross. Those making noise for the label today include Ralph Peterson, Adam Rogers, Alex Sipiagin, David Kikoski, and Peter Bernstein. This is one of the first places to look for heart-quickening, artfully conceived straight-ahead jazz. (Disclosure: I often write liner notes for the label.)

Justin Time: Based in Montreal, Justin Time got its start by showcasing the Quebecois pianist Oliver Jones and wound up being the first label to record superstar vocalist/pianist Diana Krall. Since then the label has pursued an eclectic, somewhat left-of-center course, becoming the home base of the World Saxophone Quartet and two of its charter members, David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett (now known simply as Bluiett). The innovative pianist/composer D.D. Jackson began as a Justin Time artist and has returned there following a frustrating stint with BMG. Trumpeter Russell Gunn also defected to Justin Time from the major label arena with his hip-hop-oriented “Ethnomusicology” series, which had premiered on Atlantic in 1998. Other noteworthy Justin Time artists include John Stetch, Carmen, and Curtis Lundy.

In an interesting twist, Matthias Winckelmann of Enja Records recently severed his long-standing ties with KOCH Entertainment, one of the biggest independent distributors in the business. Justin Time has taken on responsibility for Enja’s marketing and promotions and is also licensing the label’s catalog, both new and old. (KOCH’s own jazz label, KOCH Jazz, has been reconfigured under the non-jazz-specific heading of KOCH Records.)

MaxJazz: Run by former investment banker Richard McDonnell, MaxJazz is a relative newcomer with a flair for handsome packaging and focused presentation. Astutely, McDonnell got the label off the ground with a Vocal Series, releasing commercially viable discs by LaVerne Butler and Carla Cook. (Other MaxJazz vocalists include Mary Stallings and René Marie.) Next came the Piano Series and its inaugural item, Bruce Barth‘s East and West.

Barth, one of New York’s most sought-after straight-ahead players, has become McDonnell’s A&R partner; under his guidance the Piano Series continued with worthy contributions from Peter Martin, Jessica Williams, and Mulgrew Miller—all underexposed players. Barth also followed up with his magnificent Live at the Village Vanguard. This year will see the launch of the MaxJazz Horn Series, kicked off by saxophonist Steve Wilson‘s Soulful Song. Releases by trumpeters Terell Stafford and Jeremy Pelt will follow.

MaxJazz has devised a striking look for itself: tri-fold Digipacks with alluring matte finishes; black-and-white photographs offset with monochromatic color bars; and the artist’s name in full, emphatic capital letters.

KHAEON: Based in the New York suburbs of Westchester County, KHAEON has made a splash with quality music and aggressively colorful packaging (quite the opposite of MaxJazz’s subdued look). Partners Jochen Becker and Mary Jane Newman first envisioned KHAEON as a world music label and planned to call it “Khaos,” but trademark conflicts got in the way. They settled on a merger of “Khaos” and “Eon,” intended to signify the “age of disorder.” Since debuting in 2001 with John Benitez‘s highly advanced trio disc Descarga in New York, the label has remained heavily focused on Latin jazz, following up with compelling releases by drummer Bobby Sanabria, Argentinian pianist Pablo Ziegler, nylon-string guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Manolo Badrena‘s Trio Mundo, and more. KHAEON has made modest forays into world music, classical, and even “smooth jazz,” but it’s the fairly new straight-ahead jazz line that shows the most promise. Titles include Wide Open Window by pianist Deanna Witkowski, Jazz On Sale by violinist Christian Howes, and a forthcoming, co-led session by guitarist Dave Stryker and altoist Steve Slagle.

OmniTone: Perhaps more than any other label, OmniTone illustrates how slam-dunk artistic success can easily coexist with near-total financial ruin. Founded and managed by the high-strung Frank Tafuri (formerly the U.S. publicist for the Italian Black Saint and Soul Note labels), OmniTone has distinguished itself with a parade of extraordinary, category-defying discs from artists both new and established. Its motto: “All the tones, all the shapes, all the time.” The label continues to set a high standard of excellence, despite distribution setbacks that have greatly slowed its productivity. Notable titles include Baikida Carroll‘s Marionettes on a High Wire, Tom Varner‘s Second Communion, Frank Kimbrough & Joe Locke‘s The Willow, and Jim McNeely‘s Group Therapy. Upcoming releases include pianist Angelica Sanchez‘s Mirror Me and the David Liebman Big Band’s Beyond the Line.

Telarc: Distinguished by its bright yellow logo and its exceptionally diverse (some might say unfocused) roster, Telarc began as a classical label and still maintains a classical division, in addition to its jazz, blues, and crossover lines. The jazz roster—similar to Concord‘s in a way—includes elder statesmen Jim Hall, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Slide Hampton, Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, and the late Ray Brown; fusioneers Marcus Miller, Al DiMeola, and the Canadian foursome Metalwood; and younger instrumentalists like Benny Green, Geoff Keezer, and Steve Turre, along with the 23-year-old pianist Hiromi Uehara, who stampeded onto the scene this year with the scorching Another Mind. Telarc is big on vocal jazz as well, with contributors including Tierney Sutton, Janis Siegel, Kevin Mahogany, and John Pizzarelli.

**

There are countless others, of course. On the avant-garde side, there’s Delmark, Boxholder, Mutable, Eremite, Drimala, AUM Fidelity, Leo, Intakt, HatHut, FMP, Atavistic, Okka Disc, 482 Music, and more. On the straight-ahead side, there’s SteepleChase, Dreyfus, Premonition, Summit, Nagel-Heyer, Sharp Nine, Arkadia, and Reservoir, to name a few. On the fusion and electric side, there’s ESC and Tone Center. On the acoustic side, there’s David Grisman‘s Acoustic Disc. For trad jazz, we have Arbors. Musician-run labels also continue to crop up: Mike Mainieri‘s NYC Records, Branford Marsalis‘s Marsalis Music, Tim Berne‘s Screwgun, Joe Morris‘s Riti, J.A. Granelli‘s Love Slave, Russ Gershon‘s Accurate, Assif Tsahar‘s Hopscotch,

Ravi Coltrane and Mike McGinnis‘s RKM, Carla Bley‘s Watt and XtraWatt. Louie and Cryptogramophone are two of the more vital, ear-expanding outfits on the West Coast. Songlines and Knitting Factory cover a similar, left-of-center beat and continue to defy categorization. Arabesque, with its equally vibrant jazz and modern classical catalogs, nearly disappeared but is slowly returning to the scene. There are also unique cases like Thrill Jockey, home of the protean Chicago Underground movement, or the New Orleans-based Basin Street, home of Los Hombres Calientes, as well as a variety of jazz, blues, and even blues-based rock artists. Motéma, one of this year’s more promising upstarts, seems poised for a similarly eclectic journey.

From Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels
by David R. Adler
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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