Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

The people at Creative Improvised Music Projects (CIMP) don’t just record challenging, left-of-center music. They record it in a challenging way. On the rear tray card of every CIMP release one will find the following, framed in a text box:

CIMP Statement of Purpose

CIMP records are produced to provide music to reward repeated and in-depth listenings. They are recorded live to 2 tracks. There is no compression, homogenization, eq-ing, post-recording splicing, mixing, or electronic fiddling with the performance. Digital recording allows for a vanishingly low noise floor and tremendous dynamic range. This compression of the dynamic range is what limits the “air” and life of many recordings. These recordings capture the full dynamic range one would experience in a live concert. We set our levels so that the maximum signal will not overload the recorder. This means that the average level will be much lower than you are used to. You will find that if you set the levels during the loudest passages to be reasonably loud, the rest will fall into place. You may find passages where the signal is almost inaudible. Resist the temptation to turn the volume up; this is the way it sounded when it was recorded and was the dynamic intention of the musicians. In this regard these recordings are demanding. The quieter your system and the lower the noise floor of your listening area, the more impressive they will be. Treat the recording as your private concert. Give it your undivided attention and it will reward you. CIMP records are not intended to be background music.

This method is demanding not only to the listener but to the performer as well. Musicians must be able to play together in real time. They must understand the dynamics of their instrument and how it relates to the others around them. There is no fix-it in the mix safety; either it works or it doesn’t. What you hear is exactly what was played.

One could say that CIMP seeks to eliminate the middleman between artist and audience. And that middleman isn’t simply the producer or the engineer. In a sense, it’s the recording process itself.

Plenty of jazz labels can claim to utilize recording methods specifically suited to acoustic music. And plenty of jazz albums, like CIMP’s, are recorded live to two tracks, i.e., without instruments placed on separate channels and “mixed” as a final step. But CIMP takes acousticism to another level, as we will see. Its albums are so bone-dry, so ascetic, that they can sound oddly unfinished. The levels are indeed low; the equalization is as flat as a board. Turning up the volume isn’t the only temptation to resist—a clockwise crank of the bass and treble knobs brings the sound closer in line with what we consider “normal.” (Not that I’d recommend such a thing….)

Robert D. Rusch (long vowel), CIMP’s founder and producer, freely admits that CIMP’s recording technique is “the most controversial thing about the label.” Some laud CIMP’s discs as the purest on the market, a gateway to unvarnished musical truth. Others hear them as the aural equivalent of a vegan meal: highly nutritious, but lacking in flavor. Much depends on the performance in question—exactly CIMP’s point, one could argue. But re-read that brief yet suggestive second paragraph in the CIMP Statement of Purpose. Is the label’s adamant non-interventionism itself a form of intervention? Does it liberate the player to explore his or her truest self, or does it force the player to tailor that self to the CIMP philosophy? These are questions to which we’ll return.

Rusch, 60, began his lifelong involvement with jazz as an interviewer. The first Q&A he conducted, using a Dictaphone and acetate disc, was with W.C. Handy in the mid 1950s. Rusch later took up work as a jazz archivist and writer before launching Cadence, the nation’s top underdog jazz magazine, in 1976.

For a man who describes himself as “not terribly social” and “a little bit reclusive,” Rusch is more than willing to share detail after detail about his work; he practically interviews himself. He is unmistakably proud of what he does, and he routinely indulges his urge toward self-explanation. The CIMP Statement of Purpose is merely one example. His e-mail messages, which carry the following signature line, are another:

Note: This post may contain misspellings, grammatical errors, disorganized sentence structure, or may entirely lack a coherent theme. These elements come naturally to me and will only add to the overall beauty of the email. Overlook the style and know that if you can discern the message it is sincere.

This disclaimer turns out to be quite necessary. In advance of our phone interview, Rusch wrote the following, intended as a question: “anything or area you of concentration” (punctuation missing).

Rusch may be computer-challenged, but he is methodical enough to oversee an entire network of businesses in addition to Cadence magazine. The network is headquartered in Redwood, New York, about 100 miles north of Syracuse, in a four-level complex known as the Cadence Building. Cadence Jazz Records (CJR), Rusch’s first label venture, came into being not long after the magazine did; it continues to operate as a “label of last resort” for already completed projects that cannot find a home elsewhere. NorthCountry Distributors, a logical outgrowth of Cadence‘s effort to spread the word about improvised music, now boasts over 900 labels in its catalog, including the venerable Swiss-based indie HatHut. Then there’s Cadence Jazz Books, Rusch’s publishing and bookselling arm, and NorthCountry Audio, a high-end, ultra-selective equipment dealership run by Rusch’s son, Marc.

CIMP came along only in 1996, and Marc, the audio maven, warmed right away to the role of in-house recording engineer. CIMP’s operations, in fact, involve every member of the Rusch nuclear family. Daughter Kara creates original cover art, customized to the unique mood of each recording session. And Susan, Rusch’s wife, is credited on each CIMP release for “hospitality.” A CIMP session is essentially a jazz slumber party, involving a road trip to the label’s remote neck of the woods. Food and lodging are part of the deal. The food is plentiful, and the musician guests are free to partake whenever they want. (Rusch tells a wonderful story about the late bassist Wilber Morris and his favorite type of cookie, which he absolutely refused to share.) The sessions themselves take place in a studio dubbed The Spirit Room. (There is no piano in The Spirit Room; piano dates are recorded in a nearby concert hall.)

True to garrulous form, Rusch writes “Producer’s Notes” to accompany every CIMP release, and these are always exceptionally candid. If the session got off to a bad start, Rusch will tell you so. He may also relate what the weather conditions were at the time, or what the band ate prior to recording. Rusch, it is clear, is no mere spectator at these events; he is emotionally involved, alive to the creative energy that he is attempting to harness. Alongside his written statement is another from the artist, and then another from Marc Rusch, the engineer, who reflects on the session’s specific challenges and locates each of the instruments on the stereo spectrum. If any musicians on the date have appeared on CIMP before, this too is meticulously noted.

Some of the greatest minds in free jazz, including Anthony Braxton, Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre, and Joe McPhee, have made repeated visits to The Spirit Room. Free scene veterans like reedist Mark Whitecage, bassist Dominic Duval, and drummers Lou Grassi and Jay Rosen continue to make most of their records there. Up-and-coming saxophonists Avram Fefer, John O’Gallagher, and Alex Harding have made memorable journeys north as well.

With a schedule of roughly 25 releases per year, CIMP has become one of the most active indies in operation. One can thank the label for some of the most compelling music of the last half-decade; Bobby Zankel‘s Prayer And Action (CIMP 131, 1997) comes to mind. At this rate it won’t be long before CIMP releases its 200th album.

Critics use the term “over-recorded” to describe the sound of instruments larded with reverb, compression, and other studio effects. If anything, CIMP sessions are under-recorded. The label’s main goal is simply to get out of the way and let creativity happen. The players assemble in one room, without soundproofing baffles, without headphones, without an isolation chamber for the drums that is, without any of the devices that most engineers employ to generate maximum separation between instruments, the key ingredient in crystal-clear studio sound, even on live-to-two-track sessions. The Spirit Room doesn’t even have a separate control booth for Robert and Marc Rusch.

Many jazz recordings, it is true, fail to capture the raw energy and risk of a live performance. CIMP prefers to err in the other direction, toward albums that are extremely rough around the edges but closer, ideally, to a concert experience. “This is imperfect music,” Rusch says. “At its best it’s imperfect. At its worst, it’s perfect.”

Seeking out and documenting imperfection, however, isn’t as easy as it sounds. “People think we do this because it’s cheaper, but it’s not,” Rusch insists. When the entire session hinges on two centrally placed microphones, for instance, one mustn’t skimp on the quality of those microphones. (“It’s a little disconcerting,” Rusch adds, “to pay an ungodly amount for some mics and then see Marc taking them apart. Oh, please!”) The problem is that listeners without audiophile stereo systems might not hear what CIMP wants them to hear. They might instead hear an undifferentiated muddle. And they might have an especially hard time hearing the bass.

“Many musicians have said that [recording for CIMP] is the first time they’ve been able to hear themselves the way they hear themselves,” claims Rusch. But playing in The Spirit Room can entail awkward adjustments. Some musicians are less than comfortable wearing both live and studio hats simultaneously, and may find their interaction with bandmates constrained. As one CIMP artist put it, “The recording process is the constant and you’re the variable.” In other words, CIMP, despite its hands-off philosophy, cannot help but affect the performer and the performance. That’s what studios do.

Live and studio engineering have evolved into markedly different disciplines. Tchad Blake, the veteran rock producer, sums this up with a favorite aphorism: “Live is live, and studio is fantasy.” It was Blake who recorded These Are The Vistas, the Columbia debut of The Bad Plus, a highly creative acoustic trio now making inroads to the mainstream media. Reid Anderson, the group’s bassist, took note of how quickly Blake dispensed with a cardinal rule of jazz recording: capturing the “natural sound” of the instruments. Blake and the band were more interested in sculpting something “supernatural,” to use Anderson’s term. In CIMP’s view, this would qualify as “electronic fiddling,” per the manifesto. In Blake’s view, it is good production, an art unto itself.

For CIMP, live is live, and studio is live — perhaps even more live. As stubborn as it may seem, the argument has to be taken seriously. Jazz thrives on a multiplicity of approaches, and recording is no exception. CIMP is an important and steadily growing part of today’s jazz and improvised music puzzle. And Rusch, sticking by his doggedly non-commercial criteria for success, feels thoroughly vindicated: “I can’t think of a better way to throw money away.”

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