Do Jazz Record Labels Matter? : A Blog Supreme by Lars Gotrich & The ABS Team Yesterday, NPR's All Songs Considered posed the question: do record labels matter? For the fearsome foursome of Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton, Carrie Brownstein and Stephen Thompson, indie rock labels like Kill Rock Star...
NPR logo

Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106349872/106339804" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

Yesterday, NPR's All Songs Considered posed the question: do record labels matter? For the fearsome foursome of Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton, Carrie Brownstein and Stephen Thompson, indie rock labels like Kill Rock Stars and Sub Pop dominated the discussion. Manfred Eicher's ECM label was also mentioned. The proclivity toward the indie is telling, and more and more, the same case can be made for jazz.

When you think of great jazz, certain labels undoubtedly come to mind: Blue Note, Impulse, Atlantic, Columbia, Verve. From the 1950s through the '70s, their catalogs shaped jazz in truly historic ways and bravely navigated through every iteration as the definition of jazz rapidly expanded. But back in their halcyon days, A&R guys were also careful to develop label aesthetics. They made sure that when you saw Impulse's orange spine or Blue Note's signature logo in the record store, you bought it based on label association alone. And nine times out of ten, you couldn't go wrong.

When label identity changed, plus seven jazz labels we love (with audio picks), after the jump.

Today what remains of major label jazz tends to focus more on individual artist promotion than label identity. Fellow blogger Mike Katzif suggested Norah Jones' 2002 crossover hit record for Blue Note, Come Away With Me, as a turning point, and I think he might be onto something. With the runaway success of that album, jazz finally got back on its own feet in the Top 40. It also heralded the arrival of heavily-promoted pop stars on major jazz labels.

That's not to say we around ABS don't like Norah Jones. We only wanted to point out that to most casual jazz listeners, the fact that she released Come Away With Me on Blue Note Records doesn't matter. The power of curation may be a thing of the past.

Or is it? There are still many independent jazz labels that cultivate their identities with supreme care. Not wanting to hog all the love, I opened up this list of well-rounded jazz indies to all of ABS, and to you, too, in the comments.

ESP-Disk': When Bernard Stollman founded ESP-Disk' in 1966, every record bore these words: "The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk." Such a bold credo has consistently yielded challenging records, including many pinnacles of free jazz and psychedelic music: Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity; The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volumes One and Two; The Fugs First Album; and Pearls Before Swine's One Nation Underground, to name a few. The label ceased operations in the '70s, but returned in recent years not only to reissue its catalog, but also to promote a new crop of forward-thinking artists including Talibam!, Barnacled and Naked Future. --LG

Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106349872/106344346" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

"Rattles," from Barnacled, Charles. Frank Difficult, electronics; Michael Jeffries, baritone saxophone, bass; Jason McGill, alto saxophone, percussion, guitar; Matt McLaren, drums, percussion; Nicotina, guitar; Alec K. Redfearn, accordion; Chris Sadlers, bass; Ann Schattle, horn in F; Erica Schattle, bassoon.

Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes

Porter: Seemingly emerging out of nowhere in late 2007, Luke Mosling told All About Jazz that he started Porter Records as an "extension of [his] record collection." That means an Odeon Pope album sits right next to a 4xCD box set of avant-folk (The Jewelled Antler Library) or sweeping ambient music (Fabio Orsi & Gianluca Becuzzi's So Far) or hip-hop (Misled Children) and so on. It's truly a label with an ear for everything spiritual, odd and otherworldly. The label champions everyone from still-vital musicians like bassist Henry Grimes to young up-and-comers like Italian saxophonist Valerio Cosi. --LG

Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106349872/106343303" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

"Interstellar Trane," from Valerio Cosi, Collected Works.

Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes

Sunnyside: What Sunnyside's Latin jazz artists have in common is the fact that "Latin jazz" may no longer be the appropriate term for the kinds of genre bending taking place. Spanish avant-garde copla vocalist Martirio performed an album's worth of jazz ballads in Spanish; Brazilian vocalist Luciano Souza recorded 10 poems by Pablo Neruda with piano and percussion; Argentinian Guillermo Klein's big band CDs challenged U.S. big band jazz traditions as well as several Latin American folk forms: Nuyorican trumpeter/conguero Jerry Gonzalez moved to Spain a few years ago and reinvented himself as a flamenco bebop rumbero. It's new, it's exciting and I can't wait for more. --Felix Contreras

Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106349872/106340176" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

"El Corazon de Pescaderias," from Jerry Gonzalez, Y los Piratas del Flamenco. Jerry Gonzalez, trumpet, cajon; Nino Josele, Flamenco guitar.

Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes

Tzadik: Since 1995, saxophonist and composer John Zorn's Tzadik label has steadily churned out records of experimental jazz and world folk musics. The label's impressively deep catalog is broken into various collections of free jazz, noise ("Lunatic Fringe") and, most notably, post-klezmer ("Radical Jewish Culture"). There's also the "Archival Series," which houses much of Zorn's own prolific work. Tzadik albums tend toward a distinct, identifiable sound thanks to Zorn and his many frequent collaborators such as Marc Ribot, Dave Douglas and Joey Baron: players who are able to stretch into outer forms of improvisational music and complex composition. With countless other lesser-known yet remarkable artists, Tzadik is a great launching pad for listeners hoping to discover something they've never heard before. --Mike Katzif

Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106349872/106339848" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

"Rikbiel," from Masada Quintet, Stolas: The Book of Angels Vol. 12. John Zorn, alto sax; Joey Baron, drums; Uri Caine, piano; Greg Cohen, drums; Dave Douglas, trumpet; Joe Lovano, tenor sax.

Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes

Nonesuch: With a roster that includes Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, the SFJazz Collective, Kenny Garrett, Bill Frisell and so on, Nonesuch has found niche success in jazz at time when most of the "majors" have shown little interest in artistic development in the genre. Though technically under the Warner Music Group umbrella, Nonesuch has become one of the last great "multi-genre" imprints left, putting out quality releases in rock (Wilco), "world" (Buena Vista Social Club, Youssou N'Dour), classical (Kronos Quartet) and, of course, jazz. So while not strictly a "jazz only" label, Nonesuch has become a hotspot amongst musicians looking for artistic freedom. As such, it has earned a reputation with listeners as a label you can trust regardless of style. --MK

Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106349872/106339834" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

"Shutter, Dream," from Bill Frisell's Disfarmer. Bill Frisell, guitars; Greg Leisz, steel guitars, mandolin; Jenny Scheinman, violin; Viktor Krauss, bass.

Purchase: Amazon.com (pre-order)

Cryptogramophone: In 1998, violinist Jeff Gauthier founded the Los Angeles-based Cryptogramophone to address the need for a high-quality music outlet for "hidden recordings." The West Coast creative music scene has benefited greatly since this indie label carved a niche for music that did not have to be marketable -- it just had to be good. Critics have since heaped praise on releases by Trio M, Nels Cline, Jenny Scheinman (hear a concert from the Village Vanguard), Alan Pasqua, Mark Dresser and Erik Friedlander. Quite often, you'll find that Cryptogramophone recordings are the place where musicians who make their livings playing with Wilco or Norah Jones or Ani DiFranco get to make their own improvised music. The label even runs an online record store, IndieJazz, to promote creative music that's largely off the radar. -- Josh Jackson, WBGO

Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106349872/106339804" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

"brainFire and bugLight," from Trio M, Big Picture. Myra Melford, piano; Mark Dresser, bass; Matt Wilson, drums.

Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes

ArtistShare: The ArtistShare business model is less about being a "record label" than it is a way for artists to solicit funding directly from their fans. This allows a musician to make the project he or she wants to make without the meddling of a record industry producer-type who must balance the demands of the art and the marketplace. ArtistShare is a tiered approach to fundraising, whereby fans pay premiums for increased levels of engagement with the artist. Musicians with dedicated fanbases like Maria Schneider, Chris Potter, and Kurt Rosenwinkel swear by it. Until someone comes along with a better method of giving both the artist and the people what they want (Topspin?), ArtistShare is hands down the winner among independents. -- JJ, WBGO

Do Jazz Record Labels Matter?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106349872/106339726" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

"The 'Pretty' Road," from Maria Schneider Orchestra, Sky Blue. Maria Schneider, composer/conductor; featuring Ingrid Jensen, trumpet; Frank Kimbrough, piano.

Purchase: ArtistShare