Covering Expenses

A who, what, why, where, when—and how many—of the uncharted world of independent jazz labels

CUNEIFORM [1984, US, 225]
Steve Feigenbaum's notion of Adventurous Music centers on the jazz-rock convergence of Anglo groups like Soft Machine circa 1970 and radiates from there, tracking Paul Dunmall and Keith Tippett into the present, Chris McGregor and John Surman into the past.
Brotherhood of Breath, Travelling Somewhere (1973)


DELMARK [1953, US, 375]
Bob Koester started hustling records and tracking down bluesmen in St. Louis, then moved to Chicago and took over the Jazz Mart. Delmark's jazz side has waxed and waned over years tracking the Chicago scene, which means it had a blip in the AACM heyday and is way up since the mid-'90s.
Kahil El'Zabar Trio, Love Outside of Dreams (1997)


DRAGON [1975, Sweden, 220]
The Swedish jazz that makes up the bulk of this catalog leans toward the mainstream, including historic releases from important figures like Stan Hasselgård, Arne Domnérus and Bengt Hallberg, although there are some more avant moves. Mixed in are gigs from visitors, most notably Sonny Rollins.
Lars Gullin, Vol. 4: Stockholm Street (1959-60)


Carl Jefferson
photo: Concord Records
Carl Jefferson

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'Voice' Jazz Supplement

Institutionalized: JAZZ and the retailer/record label/arts center/museum/university/conservatory

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    Manfred Eicher
    photo: Roberto Masotti/ECM Records
    ECM [1969, Germany, 900]
    Manfred Eicher has maintained such a consistent look and feel that ECM is more like a genre than a label. While the earliest were pointedly avant-garde, Eicher soon gravitated to a chillier shade of cool jazz—in effect, he made free jazz safe for the world by slowing it down and compelling it to think. Working through major distributors, he also sold a lot of it—four million copies of Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert.
    Jan Garbarek, Witchi-Tai-To (1973)


    EMANEM/PSI [1974, UK, 160]
    Martin Davidson calls it Free Improvisation—a music that takes a key idea from jazz and expands it into its own universe. It's difficult stuff, as demanding on the listener as the musician. One such musician is Evan Parker, who manages the Psi boutique.
    Paul Rutherford, The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie (1974)


    ENJA [1971, Germany, 670]
    Horst Weber looked to Japan for material and sales. Matthias Winckelmann welcomed a left-leaning range of American musicians, then spread his net to gather artists from everywhere fusing everything—Abdullah Ibrahim, Dusko Goykovich, Yosuke Yamashita, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Gilad Atzmon. The founders split in 1986 but both continued to release albums under the Enja name as well as Tiptoe and Tutu.
    Abraham Burton, The Magician (1995)


    ESP-DISK [1966, US, 45]
    Bernard Stollman's motto was "the artists alone decide what you will hear," but you may wonder whether artists from Albert Ayler to Frank Wright, including some non-jazzers like the Fugs and the Godz, weren't just testing him. The catalog has kicked around, but Stollman reformed the company in 2003 and has started remastering, even coming up with some unreleased tapes.
    Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity (1964)


    FANTASY [1949, US, 2800]
    Fantasy was a small mostly-jazz label until Saul Zaentz bought the original owners out in 1967 and struck gold with East Bay rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival. Zaentz used the profits to go on a spree, acquiring Prestige, Riverside, Milestone, Contemporary, and Pablo. Although Fantasy and its subsidiaries continued to record loads of new jazz, the back catalog looms large. Fantasy has kept more old jazz in print than any major. In 2004, it was acquired by Concord, putting its future in jeopardy.
    Sonny Rollins, This Is What I Do (2000)


    FMP [1969, Germany, 140]
    The anarchists who founded FMP sought to overthrow the establishment through the Globe Unity Orchestra. Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald, and Alex von Schlippenbach were major figures here, but the label's signal production came in 1989, when Cecil Taylor manhandled every vangardist on the continent, recording 11 CDs in as many nights.
    Charles Gayle, Touchin' on Trane (1991)


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    Jordi Pujol
    photo: Carolina Pujol
    FRESH SOUND [1983, Spain, 1100]
    Jordi Pujol's fascination with "the fresh sound of the west coast" led him to license a lot of cool jazz before he added labels covering a wide range of Spanish and Latin American music. But he's developed into one of the most prolific jazz producers around, recording veterans like Bud Shank and Bill Perkins and in 1995 starting his Fresh Sound New Talent series for relative unknowns—many no longer unknown after 220 albums: Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jeremy Pelt, Miguel Zenón;, the Bad Plus.
    Reid Anderson, Abolish Bad Architecture (1999)


    HAT HUT [1975, Switzerland, 300]
    Werner Uehlinger wanted to provide an outlet for Joe McPhee, but soon after started adding other artists: Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, the Vienna Art Orchestra. One of Europe's premier avant-garde labels.
    Steve Lacy, Morning Glory (1986)


    HEP [1974, UK, 240]
    Alistair Robertson started archiving classic jazz and radio shots, but also has a fine series of new recordings informed by if not necessarily in the old vein—Herb Geller is, Jessica Williams isn't.
    Michael Hashim, Green Up Time (2001)


    HIGHNOTE/SAVANT [1996, US, 160]
    Houston Person has recorded dozens of albums for three labels going back to 1966, but he's only worked for one person: Joe Fields, at Prestige, then Muse, and finally Jazz Depot—the umbrella for these two interchangeable imprints. Fields's mainstream spreads from soul men like Person and Fathead Newman to friskier sorts like Ricky Ford and Arthur Blythe.
    Sheila Jordan, Little Song (2003)


    JAZZOLOGY/GHB/AUDIOPHILE/CIRCLE/PROGRESSIVE [1949, US, 700]
    George Buck started Jazzology to chronicle Chicago-style trad jazz, then added GHB for New Orleans, and went on to pick up other labels steeped in jazz tradition. Progressive? That's the one Stuff Smith is on.
    Bob Wilber, Dancing on a Rainbow (1989)


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