Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

Thousands of jazz albums are released every year, but Winter & Winter has had little problem standing out among the crowd. The secret? Ceaselessly creative, spare-no-cost packaging. Perhaps you can judge a book by its cover.

Winter & Winter releases come in a durable case called a “Smart-pac.” The exterior, made of the same material as a hardcover book, is wrapped in colored paper with vertical ribbing embossed into the surface. Inside is a heavy-duty, angled pocket that holds the disc itself. (Unlike jewel cases and Digipacks, Smart-pacs stow the CD on the left.) In most instances a non-removable booklet, made of the finest paper, appears opposite the disc. Along with the usual information—track and personnel lists, recording dates, acknowledgements and such—the booklet may contain abstract art, photo montages, exaggerated typefaces, or other sorts of cryptic imagery. Every item in the Winter & Winter catalog is an objet d’art, carrying an implicit promise: something extraordinary lies inside.

The label wouldn’t have gotten far without Stefan Winter’s commitment to visionary music first and foremost. Based in Munich, the 45-year-old Winter is talkative and intensely determined. He started his own restaurant at age 19, and caught the jazz bug when he heard Keith Jarrett‘s 1969 masterpiece, Somewhere Before. Now he runs Winter & Winter with his co-director and life partner Mariko Takahashi. There is no second Winter, per se. The name “Winter & Winter” was chosen because it sounded good.

When Winter set about breaking into the recording business, he looked to book publishers, with their distinct cultural and aesthetic profiles, as role models. His first venture was the influential JMT label, which released 81 albums between the years 1985 and 1995. JMT’s first offering was Motherland Pulse—the debut of altoist Steve Coleman and the inaugural blast of M-Base (macro-basic array of structured extemporizations), a Brooklyn-based collective that fashioned a new musical language from bebop, hip-hop, funk, and non-Western rhythmic traditions. Other M-Base-associated figures recorded their first solo efforts for JMT, including Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, Robin Eubanks, Jean-Paul Bourelly, and a young vocalist by the name of Cassandra Wilson. JMT also released work by leading avant-gardists such as Tim Berne, Craig Harris, and Herb Robertson. Then there was Paul Motian, the very drummer who had so enthralled Winter on Jarrett’s Somewhere Before. Motian’s JMT entries included the three-volume On Broadway series, featuring Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano, well before they were major attractions.

Not long after the demise of JMT, Winter began conceptualizing his new label along quite different lines. “When I was doing JMT, my main goal was to document unique artists, but not try to influence them,” he explains. “Today it’s very different. I still love documents, but there are so many other possibilities. Comparing it with film, you can make a documentary or you can make a feature movie. Right now we have not so many movies, but we have many documentations. So I’d rather work with musicians the way a director works with actors.”

Nothing illustrates Winter’s new philosophy in action more clearly than Uri Caine‘s multifaceted output for the label. Caine, a brilliant pianist, has cooked up readings of Wagner, Schumann, and Beethoven that are about as heterodox and hyper-eclectic as can be imagined. He has brought cantorial music, turntables, and jazz improvisation to bear on the High Romanticism of Mahler. In a move that would have either thrilled or incensed Glenn Gould, he has read the Bach Goldberg Variations through the lens of drum-n-bass, gospel, and jazz. While album concepts don’t necessarily originate with Winter, his production is hands-on, from inception to execution. The result often shows some hitherto unknown aspect of an artist’s identity and capacity.

As the Uri Caine example makes clear, Winter is keen on fostering interaction between jazz and European concert music. (In this sense, he’s not unlike Manfred Eicher of ECM.) He has also produced cabaret albums, solo cello albums, chamber and early music albums, projects inspired by Verdi and Edith Piaf. Long before trumpeter Dave Douglas was sweeping the critics’ polls, he recorded Charms of the Night Sky and Songs for Wandering Souls on Winter & Winter. Jim Black, one of the most distinctive drummers on the New York scene, has weighed in with his avant-rock outings Alasnoaxis and Splay. He can also be heard on Astereotypical, the Winter & Winter debut of the pan-Mediterranean quartet Pachora. JMT veterans Gary Thomas and Paul Motian have continued their relationships with Winter as well.

In 2001, Winter began reissuing all 81 JMT albums on his current label. He is a vehement foe of alternate and unreleased takes (“disgusting,” he calls them), and has insisted on leaving the musical content as it was. But in one important sense, Winter is righting an old wrong. “The JMT covers and booklets were done mostly by Steve Byram,” he notes. (Byram now does the Winter & Winter designs as well.) “All this art was incredible, but when it was printed on this glossy paper and put into this plastic box, something was lost. Plastic is just so ugly. It’s like with hardcover and paperback books: At the moment 90 percent of CD releases are essentially paperbacks.” Now each entry in the JMT Series gets a jet-black Smart-pac, with Byram’s original booklet inside, printed on textured paper. On the cover is a simple label in red-and-black type, with a sidebar revealing the catalog number (e.g., #06/81). The look—deliberately more generic than normal for Winter & Winter—is not unlike that of a bound volume in a library. (The label also has plans for a DVD series, although Winter is quick to point out his lack of interest in concert footage. The first item will be Step Across the Border, a road film featuring multi-instrumentalist, composer, and Winter & Winter artist Fred Frith.)

In its day, JMT was distributed by PolyGram, which has since been consumed by Universal. (Ms. Takahashi met Winter while working in Tokyo for Polydor KK, a PolyGram subsidiary.) Now Winter relies on the Allegro Corporation for U.S. distribution. Allegro is a large company that sells everything from rap records to home-schooling materials, and Winter has only good things to say about them. “I used to fight with PolyGram all the time,” he recalls. “When I started working with Allegro, I never believed anything they said. They probably thought I was an idiot, sitting here in Munich, giving them hell. It took me a year to realize, ‘wait a minute, it’s not necessary to fight.’”

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