Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

Some labels—ECM is a good example—have cultivated a sound that is more or less instantly identifiable. Palmetto Records is not one of those labels. Its releases range from the accessible organ jazz of Larry Goldings to the brittle, forbidding harmonies of Andrew Hill; from the polished pianism of Fred Hersch and David Berkman to the quasi-electric groove of Bobby Previte‘s Bump and the youthful eclecticism of Ben Allison.

Bringing diverse artists under one umbrella has come naturally for Palmetto—not least of all because the label started out by recording a babel of folk-oriented artists. Amazingly, Palmetto has grown from humble beginnings to become, arguably, the most solid, reputable jazz indie of them all. (The well-known reissue producer Michael Cuscuna, when asked a general question by this writer about young indie labels, responded, “You mean, like, Palmetto?”)

Success like this doesn’t happen by accident. Palmetto’s four full-time staffers bring to the table roughly half a century of cumulative record business experience—a portfolio that ascends all the way to the surgically altered King of Pop himself. Who better to compete with the major labels than a cadre of major label refugees?

Matt Balitsaris, Palmetto’s founder and president, is a forty-something guitarist from Knoxville, Tennessee who used to work the Greenwich Village folk and singer-songwriter circuit. Patrick Rustici, Palmetto’s executive vice president and general manager, had spent some years away from the music business when he answered Balitsaris’s ad in Billboard magazine. Among the items on his résumé: director of national sales for Columbia Records; talent manager at Tommy Mottola‘s Champion Entertainment, with clients including John Mellencamp, Hall and Oates, and Carly Simon.

Now, after years in the corporate trenches, Rustici is doing the work of 10 people in a down-to-earth, artist-friendly environment, and he couldn’t be happier. His vice president for radio promotion, Terry Coen, worked at Epic for 10 years handling promotion for Michael Jackson and Pearl Jam, among others. Mark Edwards, Palmetto’s director of retail, specialized in college radio promotion for Pure Records. These are people who know their way around the music industry. But they’re not “suits,” with no feel for the music itself. Rustici is a bass player, in fact; Edwards is a drummer.

Asked to describe his initial vision for Palmetto, Matt Balitsaris replies, “rather blurred.” His first efforts, around 1990, were utilitarian, simply a platform for his own music. But soon he discovered a love for producing. He also learned the importance, from a distribution standpoint, of having a catalog.

As he began to make more records, he concentrated on singer-songwriters and even considered world music as a possible angle. He had always sensed a philosophical connection between folk and jazz, but quickly realized that different genres are marketed through entirely different retail and promotional channels — twice the work, twice the budget. He also knew that any given singer-songwriter record had to compete with the likes of Bonnie Raitt. Jazz was a far smaller, more manageable universe, and that’s where Palmetto gradually began to focus. But it wasn’t until 1996 that Rustici came on board, and it took another two years or so for the label to establish its present direction.

All the while, Balitsaris had been building a recording studio in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he and his wife, Margaret, have a house. When it was completed he dubbed it “Maggie’s Farm,” a double-entendre honoring Mrs. B. as well as the Bob Dylan song. “The least I could do for my wife was name the studio after her,” Balitsaris quips, “because she tolerates a lot of company.” The Farm, which is geared toward acoustic instruments, has now become the label’s dedicated space.

While Palmetto offers an unusually impressive array of in-house services, Balitsaris expects in return a certain level of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness from every artist he signs. He adds that sheer likeability is a big plus. Rustici seconds that: “The way we go about choosing the people we record is special. All our artists are good people when it comes down to it.”

Quite deliberately, Palmetto has struck a balance between established and developing musicians. Signing a figure like Andrew Hill, the revered pianist/composer and 1960s Blue Note visionary, has raised the profile of the label and given the developing artists a “context to exist in,” to use Balitsaris’s words. Hill was lured onto the roster via a cold call. Dusk, released in March 2000, was his first recording in 10 years. It was followed in 2002 by a challenging large-ensemble album called A Beautiful Day.

By now, almost every member of the Dusk sextet has recorded his own Palmetto album. Bassist Scott Colley came over from Arabesque to record Initial Wisdom. Greg Tardy weighed in with Abundance. Veteran reedist Marty Ehrlich will soon release his first Palmetto disc, a quartet outing with Craig Taborn on piano, Michael Formanek on bass, and Dusk‘s Billy Drummond on drums. (Ehrlich’s appearances on Bobby Previte’s Just Add Water and Counterclockwise also helped bring this about.)

Many jazz veterans besides Hill have also recorded for Palmetto. The list includes Richard Davis, Bill Mays, Bobby Watson, Lee Konitz, Cecil McBee, and Trio 3 (Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, Oliver Lake). The younger players include Matt Wilson, Joel Frahm, Rick Margitza, Pete McCann, Ohad Talmor, Sam Newsome, and, as of spring 2003, Kate McGarry—the label’s first vocalist (and first woman). After playing piano on Bobby Watson’s Live and Learn, Orrin Evans landed his own Palmetto contract and released Meant to Shine, ending his five-album stint with the Dutch Criss Cross label. Fred Hersch, who had recorded Thirteen Ways and Live at the Village Vanguard for Palmetto under one-off contracts, later asked for an exclusive deal. The renowned pianist had been recording for Nonesuch, part of the Warner empire, but he decided to cast his lot with the little indie that could. “They have energy,” he says. (Hersch also offers unstinting praise for Nonesuch and remains on wholly amicable terms with the label.)

Palmetto has had a long-standing and greatly rewarding relationship with bassist Ben Allison. In 1992 Allison founded the Jazz Composers Collective, a musician-run nonprofit devoted to creating new models for the presentation of original, boundary-breaking music. Allison’s four Palmetto albums have earned him major critical recognition, and this has helped the Collective and the label in equal measure. Others involved with the Collective are now recording for Palmetto as well. Saxophonist Ted Nash, formerly with Arabesque, just premiered his new Still Evolved quintet, featuring Wynton Marsalis. Drummer Matt Wilson, a merry jazz prankster who plays in many of the Collective’s constituent bands, has been with Palmetto the longest, since 1996′s As Wave Follows Wave. His latest quartet recording, Humidity, was sent to New York press along with a branded Matt Wilson ice scraper, presumably to help everyone dig out from the rough winter.

Allison, who designs his own covers and packaging, appreciates Palmetto’s loyalty and emphasis on creative freedom. He also values, and shares, Palmetto’s sense of humor. He tells the story of a sales meeting held by Allegro, back when the Portland-based company was distributing Palmetto releases. Breaking the standard presentation mold, Palmetto brought in a video reel featuring the artists themselves, talking about their latest projects. Larry Goldings’s segment began with a faked, one-sided phone conversation: “I have to go… yeah, I’ll come over later… can you wear that red thing? I love you in that red thing.” Later on in the reel, Allison began his segment in the same way, on the phone: “Sure, I’ll wear that red thing….” This bit didn’t cost the label an extra dime, and it had the audience in stitches.

Palmetto’s rise has involved good fortune and happy accidents, but plenty of conscious effort as well. “I sat down with Matt early on,” Rustici recalls, “and asked, ‘what do you want to do?’ Because there are a number of ways you can go. We agreed that we should build the perception of Palmetto as a class-A label, in terms of the way we treat our artists, the way we record, the way we market and advertise.” That’s essentially what has come to pass. For up-and-coming artists, signing with Palmetto at this point is perceived as a kind of arrival. For more established artists—coping with limited choices, like everyone else — the label offers stability, teamwork, and the glow of association with a musically diverse roster.

And as for the staff, these four highly qualified professionals have found a way to succeed in business while remaining extremely close to jazz’s grass roots. As Balitsaris puts it: “It’s fun to stuff the envelopes every now and then.”

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